Fired after reporting a sexual hazing scandal in his program, a high school football coach won $900,000 in damages Wednesday when a jury found that the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento wrongfully fired and retaliated against him and ultimately defamed him.
The number could get a lot bigger for Christopher Cerbone today when the Sacramento Superior Court jury resumes its deliberations in the punitive damages phase of the trial. His lawyers suggested a figure of $4.5 million for their client.
“I was blown away that instead of taking responsibility for protecting the children, the Diocese chose to fire the person who uncovered and reported the abuse,” Cerbone said in a statement released by his attorneys, David A. Lowe of San Francisco and Tyler F. Clark of Encino. “The jury recognized that what the Diocese did was wrong and saw the truth. I am grateful for the verdict.”
Defense attorney Tom Johnson suggested that the diocese may appeal the verdict rendered in Judge David W. Abbott’s courtroom.
“The decisions made by the Diocese in this matter were for the protection of students at the school,” Johnson said in a prepared statement released by the diocese. “We are surprised and disappointed by the jury’s verdict. This is the first stage of what will likely be a long and protracted process, and we remain hopeful that the Diocese will receive a fair hearing in the future.”
Cerbone coached St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo for one season in the fall of 2012, and he testified at trial that he found out about the hazing misbehavior just before Christmas break when he overheard some of the younger players in his program speaking ill of the junior varsity coach.
He said he asked the players why they were upset, and they told him the JV coach did not protect them from senior players on the varsity who had “punked” them on the practice field. They told him that before the coaches got there to run the team through its drills, the older players on occasion would take off their shorts and force the younger players into contact with their exposed genitalia, among other actions.
The coach the next day reported the allegations to officials at the school, and the diocese launched an investigation when school classes resumed the next month. On Jan. 25, 2013, the school announced it had expelled five players and fired Cerbone. The coach testified that he angrily told school officials he planned to go to the local newspaper about the matter. Later the same day, the diocese issued a press release saying Cerbone was the one who bore ultimate responsibility for the hazing, according to evidence presented at the trial.
In its verdicts Wednesday, jurors voted 9-3 in favor of Cerbone on two questions – that the diocese retaliated against him for reporting the hazing and wrongfully fired him as a result. It voted 10-2 that the diocese defamed Cerbone by putting out the press release.
The panel then voted 10-2 to award Cerbone $300,000 for the retaliation and the firing and $600,000 for the defamation.
Jurors also voted 9-3 that Cerbone is entitled to punitive damages.
In arguing the punitive phase, plaintiff’s attorney Lowe accused the diocese of trying to cover up the hazing. He said, “If people are afraid to speak up about misconduct that is occurring,” the world would become “a very, very dangerous place,” one where “children can get abused.”
Lowe said that in issuing the press release that identified Cerbone as being ultimately responsible for the hazing,” the diocese told “the worst kind of lie you can tell about a teacher or coach.”
“It was completely destructive of his career,” Lowe said. Cerbone has been unable to find a head coaching job since his termination, he testified. He now works as an assistant principal in King City.
The firing of Cerbone “sent a message to the 1,000 other employees of the diocese,” Lowe said, and it told students and parents, “Don’t stand up. Don’t say anything about us, because this can happen to you.”
He told the jury that courts have upheld punitive damages in amounts nine times greater than the compensatory damages. He said that a multiple of five would be fine in Cerbone’s case, or $4.5 million, and that the diocese, with $129 million in total assets, can afford it.
In arguing for a lower punitive award, Johnson, the lawyer for the diocese, told the jury, “We acknowledge your verdict.”
“Sometimes the intent to do something right turns out terribly wrong,” Johnson said. He denied that the diocese tried to deceive anybody in its handling of the Cerbone matter, only that it was handled “very poorly.”
He asked the jury to keep in mind while assessing punitive damages that the diocese “does good works every day.”
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.