The Children’s Theatre Company is a valued institution in Minnesota that’s had its share of reputation challenges stemming from sexual assault that occurred there in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
While numerous lawsuits were filed and former executives went to prison, 17 women sued the Theatre years after the abuse occurred and a jury determined that the accused predator, Jason McLean, was guilty. One of the women involved in the suit, Laura Stearns Adams, was awarded $3.68 million in damages payable by McLean, only he skipped town long ago for Mexico and it’s doubtful that she’ll ever see what the court awarded her.
During legal proceedings, the court found that while the Theatre was negligent, it wasn’t financially liable for the damages, and according to law, the Theatre was within its right to recover its legal costs from the plaintiff. While such provisions have their place in some circumstances, this was clearly one where attempting to recover legal fees from a sexual assault victim was unthinkable.
Think again. Theatre officials filed documentation in an attempt to have Stearns Adams reimburse them for $295,000 in legal fees. While they were within their legal right to try to recover legal fees, the decision was morally bankrupt.
Organizations need to realize that there are two courts they need to keep in mind when making a decision – the court of law and the court of public opinion. For an institution like the Children’s Theatre Company, which relies on public support to survive, the court of public opinion should have immediately overruled the court of law that gave them the right to recover attorney fees. I’ll bet anything that there was not a single communications person involved in the final decision, which was obviously driven by dollars and not common sense.
After protests and boycotts, the Theatre reversed its decision and apologized, but the damage to its reputation has already been done, and we’re all once again reminded of its ugly past history of sexual assault.
CEOs and members of boards of directors have fiscal responsibilities, but those should not overrule doing what’s morally right, as expensive as that may be at times. The court of public opinion will eventually prevail.