SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – Finding U.S. Youth Soccer Association has an obvious duty to protect players from sexual predators, a California state appeals court on Thursday reversed a trial judge’s dismissal of an abused girl’s action against the organization.
U.S. Youth Soccer Association failed to conduct a criminal background check that could have prevented the eventual molestation of a 12-year-old girl by her coach Emanuele Fabrizio, and the trial to decide whether the organization was negligent should proceed, according to a ruling by the Sixth Appellate District. The ruling reverses a Santa Clara Superior Court judge’s dismissal of Jane Doe’s claim of negligence.
"If defendants had conducted a criminal background check of Fabrizio, his prior conviction for domestic violence would have been discovered and it would have been highly unlikely that he would have been hired," Associate Justice Nathan Mihara wrote in the 32-page order. "Thus, he would have had far fewer, if any, opportunities to sexually abuse plaintiff."
The reversal does not mean US Youth is guilty of criminal negligence; instead, the trial judge’s decision to dismiss the negligence claim is vacated and the trial will resume. Mihara was joined in the opinion by acting Presiding Justice Franklin Alia and and Associate Justice Adrienne Grover.
The three-judge panel did uphold the judge’s dismissal of a willful misconduct claim, saying there was insufficient evidence to support Doe’s claim that they purposefully refused to do criminal background checks to avoid future liability.
"Though US Youth knew that children participating in its programs were at risk of sexual abuse, they did not have actual or constructive knowledge that injury to children like plaintiff was probable," Mihara wrote. “More importantly, since US Youth took some steps to avoid harm to plaintiff and others by requiring a voluntary disclosure form, their conduct did not involve a positive intent to harm children in their soccer programs or act with complete disregard of the consequences."
The case stems from 2011, when Fabrizio met Doe, who was 12 years old at the time. She was a player on one of two West Valley teams in the South Bay which Fabrizio, who was 37 years old at the time, coached.
He violated several of US Youth's protocols during his time as coach, including being the only coach present for week-long soccer camps, driving Doe to and from practices without supervision and making "excessive and disproportionate physical contact with plaintiff."
Fabrizio drove Doe to and from a tournament in Santa Cruz alone and went for two long walks alone with the girl, causing other girls on the team to speculate there was a romantic relationship between the two.
Despite the incident coming to the attention of other coaches and a team parent, Fabrizio was allowed to continue to coach Doe while the girls who alleged a romantic relationship apologized.
"Fabrizio engaged in grooming behavior of plaintiff and her family when he became friendly with them, visited them at their home, was helpful to them, and offered to drive plaintiff to games and practices and to pick her up from such events when her parents were unable to do so," Mihara wrote in the ruling. "Z.D., a coach, M.R., and parents knew that plaintiff’s parents trusted Fabrizio and were friendly with him."
In November 2011, after other coaches complained about Fabrizio's "bad traits" and conduct with players, he was suspended as coach. But none of the players or their parents were made aware of the reasons for his suspension and Fabrizio continued to see Doe.
"Since West Valley did not inform plaintiff’s parents that Fabrizio had been suspended due to inappropriate touching of plaintiff and one-on-one contact with plaintiff, West Valley withheld information that would have put plaintiff’s parents on notice that they needed to be 'extra vigilant' in keeping Fabrizio away from plaintiff."
In October 2012, Fabrizio was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child and one count of lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14. According to the original complaint, Fabrizio told Doe that a secret sexual relationship was the secret to her maturing into a high-level soccer player capable of one day making the Women's National Team.
They had sex for the first time the day after her 13th birthday, and had sex five times altogether. Fabrizio also engaged Doe in several other sexual acts over the course of their relationship, according to the original complaint.
One of the major aspects of the civil case, which was filed in January 2013, was whether US Youth has the same "special relationship" that exists between day care centers and the children they oversee.
The panel held that while parents were present during certain parts of games and practices, there were plenty of times when coaches are the only adult supervisors and therefore act as "'quasi-parents' by assuming responsibility for the safety of the players during these practices."
US Youth did not return a phone call or an email requesting comment by press time.
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