WARREN - A jury of four men and four women spent 90 minutes in deliberations Thursday before awarding a Cortland couple and their 17-year-old daughter $600,000 in damages on the girl's claims that she was sexually assaulted on a school bus in 2006.
The verdict in the courtroom of Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge W. Waytt McKay found negligence by Community Bus Service, which contracts with county school districts to transport disabled students to classes, sometimes outside their own communities.
In the case of MacKenzie Goranitis, now 17, she was a sixth-grader being taken home from hearing-impaired classes in Champion when she says a ninth-grade boy repeatedly forced her to perform sexual acts on him over a five-day period.
The teen didn't tell her parents of the incidents until they learned of it through a relative in whom MacKenzie confided three months later.
Attorney Andrew Goldwasser, who represented the family, had asked the jury for $1 million in compensatory and another $1 million in punitive damages in his closing arguments.
In a verdict that included six out of seven jurors, the panel awarded $100,000 in damages to MacKenzie, nothing to her parents, but $500,000 in punitive damages to punish the bus company that started in 1937 and a company that, Goldwasser told jurors, normally makes $10 million a year. The damages awarded could be subject to statutory caps put in place by tort reform.
''It boils down to credibility of the witnesses and the responsibility of CBS. They're not bad people. They just made a mistake,'' Goldwasser told the jury, blaming the bus driver and an aide who were responsible for watching three students on the afternoon bus ride.
MacKenzie said she was attacked by the boy while a third student was being taken off the bus on a wheelchair lift.
One juror said a main reason damages were awarded was because CBS failed to maintain current personnel files that included hiring and training verification of the employees.
Rather than producing the files, the driver and aide testified from the witnesses stand about the training they remembered having through the company. Both employees testified they didn't see anything out of the ordinary on the bus rides.
''I hope the company changes their procedures,'' said MacKenzie's father, Louis Goranitis, who blamed the company employees for not monitoring the actions of the students.
''I just hope people believe their kids,'' said MacKenzie's mother, Kimberly Goranitis.
Attorney David Engler, for the bus company, questioned whether the attacks happened the way the teen described. He said conflicting testimony appeared to be more of a ''game of show and tell.''
The boy was never charged by authorities and was not party to the lawsuit filed in 2009.