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With new $1-million settlement in sex abuse case, L.A. Unified’s payouts continue to climb

With new $1-million settlement in sex abuse case, L.A. Unified’s payouts continue to climb
The mother of a former Miramonte Elementary School student addresses the media after teacher Mark Berndt is sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2013. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The L.A. Unified School District has reached another settlement with former students who alleged they were sexually abused by a Miramonte Elementary School teacher, bringing the total payout in the case so far to over $200 million.

Former third-grade teacher Mark Berndt was arrested in 2012 and pleaded no contest to 23 charges of lewd conduct, including feeding children his semen in what he called a "tasting game." He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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For the school district that employed him despite complaints of disturbing behavior that dated back to 1983, the damage he wrought is ongoing.

In the latest settlement, finalized earlier this week, the district agreed to pay 12 former students a total of $1,050,000, a significantly smaller sum than previously was offered to alleged victims.

In the first wave of settlements, 65 former Miramonte students who filed claims against the district received $30 million, or an average of about $470,000 per plaintiff. In the next wave, 81 former students won a much greater sum — about $1.7 million per person — prompting another round of litigation from the first group of plaintiffs, who argued they had been treated unfairly.

Eager to put the case behind them, district officials agreed to pay the first group of plaintiffs an additional $4.5 million.

If the most recent settlement is divided evenly among the 12 plaintiffs, each would receive $87,500 — less in reality after legal fees are paid.

L.A. Unified attorney Greg McNair said this group of former students got a smaller award because they waited years after Berndt's criminal behavior was exposed before suing the school district.

"The district had strong defenses to the plaintiffs' lawsuits, not the least of which was a defense based on the late filing of the claims by the plaintiffs," McNair wrote in an email. "Given the risk of seeing their lawsuits evaporate by virtue of their failures to file timely claims, plaintiffs decided to settle for a fair amount."

Attorney Greg Owen, who has sued the school district multiple times on behalf of Berndt's former students, represented plaintiffs in the latest settlement. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Even before this week's settlement, the Miramonte cases were believed to have led to the largest payout by a school district in a sex abuse case. The total could continue to climb, with three more cases brought by Berndt's former students pending against L.A. Unified, McNair said.

Other cases involving complaints of sexual abuse also await resolution.

In 2015, former Franklin High School football coach Jaime Jimenez was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting students. In May, police arrested former Asst. Principal William Webb, one of the founding administrators at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. He has been charged with three felony counts of lewd or lascivious acts, including oral copulation and sodomy on a minor.

In both cases, former students and their families have sued the school district, alleging that school staff failed to notice signs of possible abuse.

Faced with mounting legal bills and a reluctance from its insurers to cover the district's costs, L.A. Unified sued 27 insurance companies last year, arguing it was owed about $200 million. That case is still ongoing, McNair said — and with each new Miramonte settlement, the sum the district is seeking will increase.

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Twitter: @annamphillips

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