The jury forewoman said Thursday the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento probably overpaid in agreeing to the $4 million settlement with a football coach it fired after he blew the whistle on a sex-hazing scandal in his program.
“I wish they kind of would have let us battle it out a little bit,” said the forewoman, Cynthia Sanderlyn, a local insurance agent. “I told the plaintiffs they got off lucky, because I don’t think we would have awarded as much.”
Sanderlyn headed the Sacramento Superior Court jury that on Wednesday found the diocese had wrongfully terminated, retaliated against and defamed the coach, Christopher Cerbone, after he reported the hazing at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo in December 2012.
The jurors who awarded Cerbone $900,000 in compensatory damages also held the diocese liable for punitive damages. They were scheduled to continue deliberations Thursday on the punitive award. But before they could begin, the lawyer for the diocese, Tom Johnson, made the $4 million offer to plaintiff attorneys David A. Lowe, Tyler F. Clark and Erin M. Pulaski. On behalf of Cerbone, they accepted.
Forewoman Sanderlyn said she thought the case was worth $1 million or $2 million to the coach.
“I know he was hurt, and I know he was made the scapegoat,” Sanderlyn said in an interview outside Judge David W. Abbott’s courtroom. “But how do you put a monetary value on it? I don’t think he was emotionally distressed, in some of our opinions. And your reputation wasn’t (hurt) that bad.”
Despite the termination, Cerbone, 52, found a job as an assistant principal at a school in King City that paid him $30,000 more than he made at St. Patrick-St. Vincent’s. He testified at trial, however, that his termination and a diocese news release that named him as being “ultimately responsible” for the hazing ruined his chance of ever finding a job again in a field that ignited his true passion.
Sanderlyn held her sympathy in reserve.
“You’ve got another job,” Sanderlyn said. “You got more money. How do we know you’re not going to come back and be a coach?”
Cerbone coached one season, in fall 2012. He testified he found out about the hazing just before the Christmas break and reported the details of the sexually-tinged conduct to the school principal. The diocese launched an investigation when school resumed the next month. When they were finished, officials on Jan. 25, 2013, fired Cerbone and expelled five players for their alleged “punking” of younger students by exposing their genitalia and making inappropriate contact with them.
The coach did not come to court Thursday. His lawyers said he returned to his job in King City. They expressed a deep satisfaction with what one of them called “a fair resolution for this case.”
“It’s vindication for Chris Cerbone and anyone who needs protection when they stand up and tell the truth about misconduct,” Lowe said. “We think this sends a message: You can’t punish people for doing the right thing.”
Lowe said Cerbone “is going to think about what to do next, how to get his career back on track.”
In its verdicts Wednesday, jurors voted 9-3 that the diocese retaliated against Cerbone for reporting the hazing and wrongfully fired him as a result. It voted 10-2 that the diocese defamed Cerbone by putting out a news release the day he was fired, naming him as being “ultimately responsible” for his players’ misconduct.
Jurors awarded Cerbone the $900,000 in compensatory damages Wednesday, but the $4 million settlement Thursday covered all causes of actions and contained a provision that the diocese will not file an appeal, Lowe said.
Diocese attorney Johnson said his client made the offer “because Mr. Cerbone prevailed in the trial. He proved that he was unlawfully terminated, and we wanted a settlement to reflect that.”
“We’re grateful that the jury heard the case,” Johnson added. He said the diocese had “a policy of zero tolerance” on hazing, but that “at least according to what the jury said, it was executed in an unfair way” on Cerbone.
Another juror interviewed Thursday characterized the diocese’s investigation of the hazing allegations as “extremely unorganized” and “flawed.”
“It was very hush-hush, which seemed to not be appropriate for the situation,” the juror, Christine Weitnauer, said.
Weitnauer said she found Cerbone to be “a credible witness” in the way he described his discovery of the hazing and his reporting of it to his bosses. She said “I believe he is suffering embarrassment and detriment that came to him and that it was true and real.”
A third juror, David Fergber, 26, who voted against any liability for the diocese, said he wasn’t exonerating it from any wrongdoing, only agreeing that he thought the coach bore the ultimate responsibility.
Sanderlyn, the jury forewoman, said “it was really tough in there” during the two days of deliberations. “People had their opinions. It was really strong. We fought a lot.”
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.