(CN) - A school district may be liable to men who claim to have belatedly realized that their fifth-grade teacher sexually abused decades ago, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled.
Seven men sued the Lake Oswego School District in 2008, alleging they were sexually abused by fifth grade teacher Judd Johnson between the late 1960s and 1980s. Lake Oswego is a suburb of Portland.
The men, who are all in their 40s and 50s and suing under psuedonyms, say they only realized that Johnson's inappropriate touching was abusive in the last six years.
"While serving as plaintiffs' teacher, Johnson engaged in a 'grooming process' that involved befriending plaintiffs, gaining their trust, admiration and obedience, and conditioning them to respect Johnson as a person of authority," according to the Oregon Supreme Court's summary of the allegations.
"As part of that 'grooming process,' Johnson also befriended plaintiffs' families and gained their trust, their permission to spend substantial periods of time with plaintiffs, and the benefit of their instruction to their sons to respect and comply with Johnson's authority and requests."
Among other things, the men say Johnson fondled their genitals in the classroom in front of other students on different occasions.
The school district argued that plaintiffs would have known the teacher's actions were inappropriate at the time it occurred, and the trial court agreed.
"There is no 10-to-13-year-old child, other than one, perhaps, that's mentally retarded, who would not understand that this kind of touching is wrong," Judge James Tait wrote for the Clackamas County Circuit Court.
The Oregon Court of Appeals later affirmed, finding "no basis to say that the plaintiff did not know of or could not reasonably have discovered the injury."
Last week, however, the men found relief from the Oregon Supreme Court,
"Just as the negligent character of a defendant's conduct is not always immediately apparent, the line between offensive and socially acceptable touching also may be difficult to ascertain," Justice Martha Walters wrote for the six-member court.
Given the plaintiffs' age, relationship with their teacher, and the nature of the harm, the court concluded that a jury could find that the men did not know the touching was inappropriate at the time.
"In this case, we are ... unprepared to make the leap of faith for which defendant contends - that in 1984, all fifth-graders must be deemed to have known that a trusted teacher who had touched them in socially acceptable ways and whom they had been conditioned to respect and obey had crossed a line and touched them in a new way that society abhorred," Walters wrote.
The unanimous panel found the trial court improperly dismissed the claims for sexual abuse of a child on timeliness grounds, and that the lower courts should have better distinguished the plaintiffs' battery claims and their other claims.
The Oregonian reported that Johnson, now 70, was eventually charged with sexually abusing a student while working at Lake Grove Elementary. He pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual abuse before resigning on Feb. 1, 1984.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.