Attorneys presented different accounts of the same story on Wednesday during opening statements of a civil trial brought by the mother of a developmentally disabled man who was allegedly raped at a nonprofit housing facility in Grand Forks. The plaintiff alleged the care center knowingly housed a sexual predator with her son and then tried to cover up the rape.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Jonathon Yunker, opened the trial by telling the nine jurors and two alternates that the case is about “protecting those who can’t protect themselves.”
The lawsuit charges Development Homes Inc., its CEO, Grand Forks City Council member Sandi Marshall, and other DHI employees with negligence, failure to provide a safe environment, violating the victim’s rights and inflicting emotional distress. The suit was filed in December 2017. Jury selection began Tuesday.
Criminal charges were never filed.
The Herald does not identify victims of sexual assault and has chosen to keep the plaintiff and her son’s name private.
Yunker told jurors about the alleged victim -- a developmentally disabled man with autism and the mental capacity of a 2-year-old child. He said doctors told the man’s mother after he was born that it would be easier to institutionalize him as an infant, but she cared for him anyway. At age 11, the boy moved to DHI for constant care. He lived at the facility for nearly 29 years.
During the fall of 2015, the man’s longtime roommate was replaced and the alleged perpetrator was housed with him in the duplex.
The defendant’s attorney, William Behrmann, said the new roommate was intellectually disabled and suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
Behrmann told jurors the decision to house the new roommate was approved by a state developmental disabilities program manager. He said DHI collaborated with the mother for seven months before the move, holding “so many meetings that (the plaintiff) lost count.”
Yunker told jurors the new roommate had previously sexually assaulted a resident at another care complex and had a history of sexual misconduct. He said DHI had a responsibility to warn the mother about the safety risks posed by the new roommate.
Around 3:30 a.m. on May 22, 2016, a DHI staff member went into the man’s room and witnessed the new roommate raping him, the suit alleges. The staff member reported the rape around 9 a.m. to a supervisor and was told to file a general event report, Yunker said. Police were not contacted and the man was not taken to a hospital for medical attention, Yunker told jurors.
The mother was notified 32 hours after the alleged rape; she called police and took her son to the hospital. Behrmann said staff members should have responded differently and policies were not followed. He asserted that once the staff learned of the alleged assault Monday morning while looking over notes from the weekend, they reacted immediately.
“All the policies and procedures at DHI put in place to respond to situations like this were not implemented -- they should have been,” he said.
Yunker said the employee who witnessed the event changed her story after meeting with Marshall, but Behrmann asserted his clients cooperated with the investigation. He told jurors to keep an open mind as they hear testimony throughout the next week.
“How could they do such a big thing so badly? It’s awful, vile, reprehensible -- that’s what it looks like,” he said. “But you will learn that is not what it is.”
Yunker asked jurors to hold the defendants accountable.
“Send a message that we protect the innocent -- here in Grand Forks and here in North Dakota -- we protect those who cannot protect themselves," he said.
The plaintiff was the first to take the stand Wednesday and the trial is scheduled to conclude next Wednesday.