$1 MILLION VERDICT AGAINST SALVATION ARMY:JURY SAYS NONPROFIT RESPONSIBLE FOR ASSAULT BY REHAB CENTER MANAGER, RESIDENTS
A Sonoma County jury awarded more than $1 million Friday to two men who
were beaten by residents and an employee of the Salvation Army's drug
rehabilitation center near Healdsburg.
Jurors said the Lytton Springs facility was responsible for the 2005 attack
on Sean Levens, 27, of Shelbyville, Ind., and Scott Nunley, 26, of Santa Rosa
because it hired and put in charge a former addict with questionable
Jurors said drug-addict-turned-resident manager Stephen Watson was also
responsible, as were others in the attack. But the jury punished the Salvation
Army, saying it bore 80 percent of the responsibility for the attack because
it hired Watson and made him a manager.
Levens was to receive more than $906,000 of the award, which included
payments for medical bills accrued for treatment of a permanent brain injury,
as well as past and future suffering. Nunley was awarded about $170,000.
Their lawyer, Jeremy Fietz, argued during the civil trial that the
Salvation Army was negligent for allowing Watson, a recent graduate from the
program, to supervise more than 90 recovering addict-residents, many of whom
were referred by criminal courts.
Fietz compared the Salvation Army's actions to ''putting a wolf in charge
of a zoo.''
''When members of a community get hurt by dangerous animals, who do they
hold responsible?'' Fietz said in an interview after the verdict. ''They ought
to hold the zookeeper responsible. The zookeeper should know better.''
Steve Werth, an attorney for the Salvation Army, said he didn't believe the
evidence supported findings of negligence or that the incident was forseeable.
He said the Salvation Army was considering whether to mount an appeal.
''In our view, and what I hoped the jurors would agree with, was that this
was a matter personal in nature, motivated by malice and fueled by alcohol,''
It remained unclear what impact, if any, the jury award would have on the
organization locally. Werth said the Salvation Army was self-insured, but he
said he did not know more about the impact of such a court award.
''I would certainly hope this verdict is not going to impact the Salvation
Army in any way,'' Werth said. ''It would be the hope of all involved in this
Major Jack Phillips, regional administrator for the Salvation Army's adult
rehab program, did not return calls seeking comment.
The verdict came after three weeks of testimony about events leading up to
the Nov. 25, 2005, attack from the victims, Watson, Salvation Army officials
and medical experts.
In the criminal trial, Watson and one other man, Terry Terwilliger, were
convicted of felony assault and were sentenced to state prison. Watson was
freed after serving about four years.
The civil proceedings covered some of the same ground, with witnesses
explaining how the then-22-year-old Watson was hired on as a driver after
completing a program for methamphetamine addiction. Within months, Watson was
promoted to assistant residential manager and manager, supervising some of the
same people he was in rehabilitation with.
Witnesses testified that the Salvation Army allowed him to conduct his own
drug testing and use facility vehicles. He began supplying residents with
alcohol and prostitutes and even forced out those he didn't like, according to
Fietz argued the Salvation Army gave Watson sweeping authority despite
knowing about his past, which included an affiliation with a white supremacist
gang, according to court records.
On the night of the attack, Watson put about a half-dozen addicts into a
Salvation Army van and drove to Santa Rosa for a night of drinking. After
getting ejected from a bar on Mendocino Avenue, the group spotted two men --
Levens and Nunely -- walking down a street, pulled over and attacked them.
The two were beaten severely and a third man, Jacob Thill, sustained minor
injuries. He settled with the Salvation Army before trial for $45,000, Fietz
Watson has since sought forgiveness from the men. Outside the presence of
the jury he rendered a tearful apology and cooperated with his candid
testimony, said Fietz, who was joined by co-counsel Rex Grady.
In explaining the decision, jurors concluded the Salvation Army was 80
percent responsible for the beating and that Watson was 11 percent to blame.
Other attackers were 9 percent negligent, the jury said.
''What resonated with the jury was the question of community safety,''
Fietz said. ''You just can't put a 22-year-old in charge of 90 rehab residents
with that kind of history.''
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or