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Belated suits in teacher sex abuse at issue for N. Tonawanda district

The North Tonawanda School District continues to fight lawsuits filed by two young women who say teacher Jason A. Lorich sexually abused them when they were third-graders more than a decade ago.

Although the district has settled seven lawsuits from Lorich's victims, reportedly for a total of more than $3.5 million, those cases were filed by the girls' parents soon after Lorich's arrest in 2001.

The two open cases were filed last year, when the girls turned 18, because their parents had never seen fit to bring suit.

"We take the position that 10 years is too long," the district's lead attorney, Hugh M. Russ III, said last week.

In the latest courtroom dustup, Christopher J. O'Brien, attorney for one of the new plaintiffs, accused the district of asserting that the girl was partly responsible for her own abuse.

O'Brien flared up when he read the district's sixth of 18 possible defenses: that any award of damages that the girl would receive should be reduced "in proportion that her culpable conduct, including contributory negligence or assumption of the risk, bears to the total culpable conduct found to have caused her damages or injuries."

Defense No. 7 in court papers was a contention that any damages "were caused in whole or in part by plaintiff's failure to take reasonable actions to avoid and/or mitigate the injuries or damages."

O'Brien declined to be interviewed, but he wasn't so reticent in court papers, where he accused the school attorneys of making an argument that was "more than just frivolous, it is morally reprehensible."

Pointing out that his client was 8 when Lorich allegedly abused her in his Meadow Elementary School classroom, O'Brien wrote, "The plaintiff cannot be accused of assuming the risk of being sexually assaulted."

State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III threw out the sixth defense -- Russ said he withdrew it first -- and edited the seventh.

"We by no means intended to contend the infant was to blame or partially to blame," Russ said.

In another filing, school attorneys argued that any mental, emotional or psychological problems the girl has could be attributed to her unmarried parents' breakup, neglect by her mother, and the girl's moves to attend two other high schools outside North Tonawanda.

"We were trying to reserve our right to prove the problems she has today were not or not all caused by Lorich's abuse," Russ said.

Also, the school is appealing Boniello's decision last year that the girl would be allowed to file a belated notice of claim.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court upheld Boniello's ruling on that topic by a 4-1 vote, but the school district is asking the state's highest court to review that decision.

The girl's lawsuit would be thrown out if the Court of Appeals were to reverse Boniello on the timeliness issue.

Russ said as time goes on, witnesses become unavailable and documents disappear. "We have no ability to investigate these allegations," he asserted.

Lorich, 38, is in state prison for violating parole on his original 10-year sentence. He has another chance to be released Aug. 1, if he succeeds at a Parole Board hearing in June.