Sexual abuse victims in lawsuits filed against the Children’s Theatre Company are now taking their fight to a new target — one of the theater’s insurance companies.
Laura Stearns is one of 17 plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits against the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) since 2015, brought under the Minnesota Child Victims Act over sex abuse at the theater in the 1970s and 1980s. Her case was the first to go to trial; the jury found that the CTC had been negligent, but wasn’t liable for damages.
She and others planning a protest next week at a Travelers insurance office in St. Paul allege the insurer was behind CTC’s initial effort to recoup legal costs from Stearns.
She also contends that jurors had no idea that insurance companies, not CTC, were on the hook for paying any damages; state law restricts revealing that information at trial. She thinks the outcome of her case, and perhaps cases to come, would be different if the jury knew that, so they’re drawing attention to Travelers.
“If a jury had known it wasn’t Children’s Theatre paying for it … then they would have had no question [about determining CTC was liable]. They didn’t want to hurt Children’s Theatre,” Stearns said. “I want people to understand what’s happening behind the scenes. This is about insurance money, and no one could tell [the jury] that. Insurance companies are protected more than a sexual assault survivor.”
In her case, the jury did return a $3.68 million verdict against Jason McLean, a former teacher whom Stearns accused of raping her in the 1980s, but McLean apparently fled to Mexico, and Stearns said she’s unlikely to recover any money from him.
However, CTC attorneys argued that, as the prevailing party in the trial, they should be reimbursed for $283,000 of their costs. As a result, Stearns urged a boycott of the Minneapolis theater’s shows and classes and has protested outside the theater every Saturday since June. At the end of May, CTC leaders issued a public apology to Stearns and later filed a notice dropping their request to recover the court costs.
Since Stearns said the pressure to seek court fees came from CTC’s insurance companies, she’s protesting outside Travelers from noon to 2 p.m. Friday in St. Paul. Travelers, which is based on the East Coast but was formed in the 2004 merger of the St. Paul Cos. and Travelers Property Casualty Corp. of Hartford, Conn., still has a sizable operation in St. Paul.
“Abuse of any kind is unconscionable, and our heart goes out to the victims,” Travelers spokesman Matt Bordonaro said in a statement. “With respect to Ms. Stearns, we offered our full liability policy limit as part of a seven-figure settlement before trial on behalf of Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). Ms. Stearns rejected that offer and chose to go to trial where a jury of Minnesota citizens found that the CTC was not responsible for her damages. We have resolved many abuse cases on behalf of our policyholders over the years, and we continue to empathize with the victims in these unfortunate situations.”
CTC attorney Theresa Bevilacqua confirmed that Travelers is one of CTC’s insurers but declined to comment about the protest or Stearns’ statements.
In a videotaped apology last month, artistic director Peter Brosius said: “We will continue to work with the survivors who have filed lawsuits and will work toward settlements that will give them the help and healing they need.”
In June, CTC donated $17,000 to Empower Survivors, a Stillwater-based nonprofit serving childhood sexual abuse survivors — the proceeds from the theater’s June 16 performance of “Matilda the Musical.”
In response to the Travelers statement, Stearns said she rejected the settlement because it was an insufficient amount and CTC declined her other requests, including setting up a fund for victims and making evidence public.
The next court case against the Children’s Theatre and McLean involves a plaintiff referred to as Doe 76 and is scheduled for trial on Oct. 21.
“I do believe this is a precedent. … The next people up for trial know what happened to me,” Stearns said.
The Children’s Theatre is a nonprofit that receives most of the revenue for its $13.5 million budget from tickets, grants and contributions. The organization has been dogged by controversy for decades since the sex abuse scandal.
Playwright John Clark Donahue, who co-founded the company and died this year, pleaded guilty in the 1980s to molesting three boys and admitted to abusing and raping several boys.
Stearns’ attorney, Jeff Anderson, has said more than 100 victims were abused by 20 offenders at the theater.
State Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who is an attorney, said she’s exploring whether a change in state statute could prevent defendants in sex abuse cases from using the same motion to demand a plaintiff pay court costs, like what happened in the CTC case.
“It’s going to chill victims from initiating these kinds of lawsuits,” Moller said. “I want to do all I can to seek justice for victims.”