by Terrie Morgan-B...
Posted on February 17, 2017 16:15 PM
The civil trial verdict in favor of Old Forge borough, its fire company and two former police officers who were charged with sexually abusing a minor highlights key differences in criminal and civil law, attorneys for the defendants said.
Earlier this week, a federal jury found former firefighter Walter Chiavacci liable, but cleared the borough, former police chief Larry Semenza and former police captain Jamie Krenitsky, despite the fact that Krenitsky pleaded guilty in 2013, to indecently assaulting the victim when she was 15. The Citizens’ Voice does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Krenitsky was sentenced to nine to 23½ months in prison for admitting he had oral sex with the teen several times over a six-month period in 2005. The plea did not automatically mean the woman, now 27, would succeed in seeking monetary damages from him and the borough, however.
The civil case hinged on additional legal issues that were not present in the criminal case. To hold Krenitsky and Semenza responsible, the woman had to show not only that the acts occurred, but that they caused her emotional harm.
She faced a tougher challenge to hold the borough liable. She first had to prove Krenitsky and Semenza committed the acts and used their position as police officers, rather than private citizens, to do so. Even if she proved that, she then had to convince jurors that the borough was negligent for failing to enact policies to protect minors. She also had to prove negligence to hold the fire department liable.
The woman filed suit in 2012, for emotional harm she suffered. Her attorney, Matthew Slocum, alleged borough and fire company officials partly were responsible because they abdicated their responsibilities, which enabled the abuse to occur.
After six days of testimony, the jury found Chiavacci, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to indecent assault, liable for molesting the woman on one occasion in 2004, and awarded her $20,000 in damages.
The panel completely absolved Semenza, finding he did not commit any sexual acts against her when she was a minor. The panel found Krenitsky, who admitted to the conduct, had abused her. It did not hold him liable for damages, however, because it determined the woman suffered no emotional harm from the conduct.
Krenitsky’s attorney, James Doherty III, said he believes the jury’s finding was based on the testimony of the plaintiff, who acknowledged she did not consider the relationship with Krenitsky, which she described as being a “friend with benefits,” to be traumatic at the time it was occurring or in the years after it ended.
“Her testimony in the case was ... even after the relationship ended, she viewed him as a friend,” Doherty said. “She didn’t establish she had any resulting harm.”
Semenza’s situation differed. He was convicted in 2013, of corruption of a minor and another offense for allegedly sexually abusing the woman starting in 2004, when she became a junior firefighter with the Old Forge Hose & Engine Company, and ending in 2007. That information was not allowed at the civil trial, however, because his conviction was overturned on appeal in 2015. Semenza then pleaded guilty to harassment under a deal worked out with Lackawanna County prosecutors.
Semenza continued adamantly to deny claims against him at the civil trial. His attorney, Joseph Goldberg, said he believes the key evidence for the jury was a transcript of a secretly recorded call Krenitsky, who was working with police, made to Semenza in 2012.
Krenitsky tried to get Semenza to implicate himself, but he repeatedly denied any sexual contact with his accuser.
“He said ‘I have nothing to hide, I never touched her.’ The jury found that to be true,” Goldberg said.
Harry Coleman, the borough’s attorney, said he was confident the borough would prevail in the case because, even if the woman proved the abuse occurred, there was no evidence that Krenitsky or Semenza were acting in their official capacities as police officers at the time.
“Just because they are employed as police officers, it does not naturally follow that . . . it was done when they were exercising their authority as police officers,” Coleman said.
The jury agreed with that position, and therefore did not address whether the borough was negligent for not having policies in place.
Michael Patterson, attorney for the fire company, said he believes the jury was influenced by the woman’s admission that she did not tell anyone of the abuse, therefore she could not show officials were negligent. He also noted the department had safety policies in place for minors that mirrored policies in other departments statewide, he said.