SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CN) — Five members of an Indiana family that was torn apart by a child's death and unsubstantiated accusations of abuse and neglect are entitled to a $31.35 million judgment against Indiana Department of Child Services employees who falsely accused the parents of killing their child.
The jury award is the result of 2008 lawsuit stemming from the sudden death of 14-year-old Francesville, Ind., resident Jessica Salyer.
Salyer suffered from several major medical issues, including congenital heart disease and a seizure disorder. At the time of her death in 2005, Salyer lived with her mother, step-father, brother and two sisters.
Although the Pulaski County coroner and numerous state and national medical experts ruled that Salyer died as result of "major prescriptive error," errors in the dosages and combinations of drugs she took for her chronic medical conditions as well from the conditions themselves, five Indiana DCS employees insisted that the girl suffered a fatal beating on the day of her death and a skull fracture that had been inflicted within 24 hours of her death.
Despite an abundance of medical evidence to the contrary, the child-welfare workers accused Salyer's mother and step-father, Lynette and Roman Finnegan, of beating the girl to death and told Salyer's siblings that their sister died an "excruciating" death at the hands of one or both of their parents, the lawsuit claimed. The DCS employees also told the Finnegan's 18-year-old son that Lynette Finnegan blamed him for his sister's death.
According to the lawsuit, in the immediate aftermath of Salyer's death, DCS employees then removed the two sisters, both minors, to foster homes and subjected them to nine months of "improper investigative therapy" and police interrogations.
Before the ordeal was over, the Finnegans were arrested on neglect charges (later dropped), Salyer's body had been exhumed, family breadwinner Roman Finnegan, a 15-year veteran of the Indiana Department of Corrections, had lost his job, and the family lost their home and possessions.
After an emotionally-charged 15-day trial in 2015, a jury handed down the $31.35 million judgment.
In their recent motion to alter the award, the DCS argued, "The jury improperly awarded damages at an emotional level based solely on the tragedy of Jessica's death. Even [the family] implicitly recognizes [that] Jessica's untimely death was the actual loss that created all of their pain and suffering."
But in a 17-page ruling denying the DCS motion, U.S. District Court judge Rudy Lozano disagreed.
"This view is myopic," Lozano wrote. "When considering the record in its entirety, the Court finds that it is more likely the jury believed the actions of the DCS defendants compounded that loss and caused the family significant additional trauma at a time when they were most vulnerable and fragile."
Lozano added, "The jury was capable of sifting through such evidence and using their own sound judgment to determine what impact the actions of each . . . defendant had on each plaintiff. The evidence establishes harrowing injuries of almost unfathomable magnitude.
"The Court is convinced that the compensatory damages awards in this case were rationally connected to the evidence presented and were not, as the state defendants suggest, simply a product of passion or prejudice."
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