COLUMBIA — In what may be the largest award for a case of its kind in Boone County history, a Columbia woman has been awarded more than $300,000 for damages related to prolonged sexual abuse.
The judgment handed down by Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler comes after years of legal struggles in both criminal and civil courts. Both parties in the lawsuit waived a jury trial.
In a lawsuit filed in the spring of 2004, Deborah Caruso, 55, accused Ashland resident Harold Eugene Harmon, 65, of assault and battery. From December 1999 to April 2002, the lawsuit alleged, Harmon "stalked, harassed, intimidated, threatened and verbally, emotionally, physically and mentally abused" Caruso.
The abuse took place at the Pierpont Store in southern Columbia, where Caruso had worked as manager and bookkeeper since 1995, according to the lawsuit. Harmon, a contractor with a cement business, would visit the store when he knew it wouldn't be busy, Caruso's attorney William Rotts said. During his visits, Harmon would sexually abuse Caruso and then threaten and intimidate her, he said.
The lawsuit claimed the abuse caused physical and psychological injuries that permanently and totally disabled Caruso. Rotts said she is also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a serious affliction that affects some victims of abuse.
Caruso, who no longer works but receives Social Security disability payments, declined to be interviewed.
The outcome of the lawsuit is significant not just because of the size of the award, but because very few civil cases of this kind are successfully prosecuted.
"You don't often see victims of this type of crime compensated this way," Rotts said.
In a brief search of Westlaw, a legal research database, MU professor of law Mary Beck said she was unable to find any similar cases that reached appellate court in Missouri. Civil cases like these are more difficult to prove, Beck said, because they are based on proving the mental and emotional trauma of the victim. The focus is on systematic abuse over time and its effects on the victim, rather than on specific, discernible events.
The Boone County Sheriff's Department installed hidden cameras in the Pierpont Store in 2002 after Caruso reported the abuse, Rotts said. It was a complex set of circumstances that prevented her from reporting it sooner, he said. For one, she was intimidated by Harmon and feared for her safety if she reported him. Also, she was raised a Jehovah's Witness and had been taught to resolve issues privately, through communication and understanding.
Caruso did talk to her employer and her best friend and went to a women's shelter for advice but was reluctant to go to the police. "It is the worst fear that every woman has in coming forward to the authorities, that she won't be believed," Rotts said.
In May 2002, the Boone County Prosecutor's Office charged Harmon with class C felony sexual abuse. After a number of pre-trial proceedings, Harmon pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual misconduct and third-degree assault, both misdemeanors. His agreement to plead guilty to lesser charges kept him from being placed on the Missouri Sex Offender Registry.
Harmon's sentence of one year in Boone County Jail was suspended, and he was placed on two years' supervised probation, according to court documents. He served the year in jail, however, after the court found in July 2005 that he violated his probation after failing to attend court-ordered sex offender therapy.
Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the outcome of this case sends an important message to the community about sexual abuse. "This shows that there are additional options for justice that can be pursued by women who have been harmed," she said. "It also sends the message that there is a reason to pursue it."
Victims' reluctance to report abuse to police is commonplace, she said. Such crimes are typically the most underreported because they often occur between people who know each other, and some women don't even recognize the abuse as a crime, she said.
After years of litigation, the case is still not over for Caruso. In the summer of 2007, Harmon filed for Chapter Seven bankruptcy, naming Caruso as a creditor in the filing. Rotts said he expects Harmon to try to convince the court that his debts to Caruso should be forgiven.
For now, Caruso has one victory in her long court battle. "For six years her credibility had been placed continuously at issue by the defense," Rotts said. "Then to have a judge certify your claim with this type of judgment, that's what makes it significant. The message that my client will take away from this is that justice prevails."