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Oregon Parolee Negligent Supervision Case Reinstated

The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment against a teenage girl who was raped by a violent parolee.

In November 1997, 14-year-old Akilah Johnson was assaulted and raped by a stranger. More than four years later, on April 29, 2002, Ladon Stephens was arrested on charges arising from a different rape. DNA tests linked him to Johnson’s rape, the rapes of three other young girls, and to the highly publicized 2001 rape and murder of 14-year-old Melissa Bittler. PLN has previously reported on the Bittler case [see: PLN, June 2005, p.6].

Johnson was not initially informed that DNA had established that Stephens was her rapist. A May 30, 2002 story in The Oregonian newspaper reported Stephens’ “arrest for the rape of a Portland woman and similarities to the rapes of other victims.” The article described details of earlier rapes, which matched the details of Johnson’s rape, but did not mention her name.

When Stephens raped Johnson he was under post-prison supervision for three attempted kidnappings; he had served six years in prison. On May 31, 2002, The Oregonian reported that “Stephens had ‘been under high-level supervision and undergoing sex offender treatment’ before his most recent arrest.” The article quoted a Multnomah County Department of Community Justice spokesperson as saying it was “very difficult for the supervising officers to realize this killer was one of our individuals on parole.” Again, the article did not mention Johnson or that Stephens was on parole supervision in 1997. A June 1, 2002 article indicated, however, that Stephens had been on parole since his December 1996 release from prison.

On July 28, 2002, The Oregonian reported that Stephens had failed polygraph tests while on supervision. In December 2002 both The Oregonan and Willamette Week newspapers ran several articles critical of the state’s post-release supervision of Stephens. One of those articles included his photo.

On December 30, 2002, Johnson began serving a jail sentence that lasted until October 20, 2003. While she was in jail, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office told her that Stephens was her assailant in the 1997 rape. Johnson attended Stephens’ court proceedings in July 2003. While Johnson was still incarcrated, The Oregonian ran an October 3, 2003 story about Stephens’ post-release supervision, in which Melissa Bittler’s father said he was considering legal action.

On April 28, 2004, Johnson filed a tort claim notice against the county, expressing her intent to sue for its negligent supervision of Stephens which resulted in her rape. She then brought suit against the county in state court. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Johnson’s action was barred because her tort claim notice was not timely. Johnson appealed.

The Court of Appeals noted that Oregon law requires tort claim notices against public bodies to be filed within 180 days of the alleged loss or injury. Under the discover rule, however, that time limit does not begin to run until the plaintiff knows or reasonably should know that an injury occurred, the injury harmed one or more of the plaintiff’s legally protected interests, and the defendant is the responsible party.

The appellate court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants, rejecting their argument that the “[news] coverage was sufficient to alert plaintiff to facts establishing a substantial possibility that defendant was at fault.” The Court of Appeals concluded “that plaintiff’s failure to see six newspaper articles (three of which were published while she was incarcerated) and a few television news broadcasts indicating that her attacker was under defendant’s supervision was not unreasonable as a matter of law. Given her age, her circumstances, and any number of other facts that could be adduced at trial (circulation figures for the media outlets involved, plaintiff’s educational background, etc.), a rational juror could easily conclude that plaintiff either should or should not reasonably have seen the relevant reports. That is a triable fact for the jury.”

The Court of Appeals also found “a triable question whether the facts that plaintiff actually knew – in particular, that the man who raped her also committed several other rapes and a murder – should have led her to conduct an inquiry that, in turn, would have led her to discover defendant’s role prior to October 28, 2003.” See: Johnson v. Multnomah County Dept. of Comm. Justice, 210 Or.App. 591, 152 P.3d 927 (Or.App., 2007).

On February 14, 2008, the Supreme Court of Oregon affirmed the appellate court’s ruling, holding that factual issues precluded summary judgment on the 180-day time limitation for filing a tort claim notice. See: Johnson v. Multnomah County Dept. of Comm. Justice , 344 Or. 111, 178 P.3d 210 (Or., 2008).

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Related legal cases

Johnson v. Multnomah County Dept. of Comm. Justice

Johnson v. Multnomah County Dept. of Comm. Justice