Sexually abused woman appeals liability ruling

A WOMAN who was sexually assaulted 20 times by a national school principal at the age of eight has asked the Supreme Court, in a test case, to rule that the Minister for Education and the State are vicariously liable for the assaults.

More than 200 cases are awaiting the outcome of the action by Louise O’Keeffe which, the State says, could lead to it being held liable, not just for abuse in the past, but for “a whole host” of events occurring daily in more than 3,000 national schools.

The five-judge court yesterday began hearing the appeal by Ms O’Keeffe, aged 43, a separated mother of two, of Thoam, Dunmanway, Co Cork, against a High Court decision that the State is not vicariously liable for the assaults inflicted on her by Leo Hickey at Dunderrow National School, Co Cork, from January to September 1973.

In 1998, Hickey was jailed for three years after pleading guilty to 21 charges of indecent assault from a sample 386 counts relating to 21 girls.

Ms O’Keeffe was later awarded €54,000 compensation by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal on condition she repay it out of any damages secured in the High Court. She is disputing liability to repay, arguing the award was inadequate and accepted under duress. Her High Court proceedings against Hickey and the State were heard by Mr Justice Eamon De Valera in 2004. At the outset, judgment was obtained in default against Hickey who did not appear and damages against him were later assessed at €300,000 with the judge noting the assaults had a “catastrophic effect” on Ms O’Keeffe.

The assaults affected her ability to have normal physical and sexual intimacies, to socialise, caused her to be over-protective of her children and played a big role in destroying her marriage, the court heard.

However, the judge dismissed her claim that the State was vicariously liable for the assaults and also awarded costs estimated at some €500,000 against Ms O’Keeffe.

As part of her appeal, Ms O’Keeffe contends the trial judge failed to properly consider all of the evidence and law in the action, delayed almost two years before delivering judgment, repeatedly failed until ordered by the High Court president to list the matter to say when judgment would be delivered, and unfairly awarded costs against her.

She wants the Supreme Court to set aside the High Court decision, find vicarious liability against the State and award damages to her. Alternatively, she says the case should be reheard by the High Court.

The appeal continues today.

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