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To recover defense costs, Children's Theatre goes after assault survivor

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Laura Stearns, the plaintiff (second from right)
Laura Stearns, the plaintiff (second from right).
Marianne Combs | MPR News file

The Children's Theatre Company has begun proceedings to collect close to $300,000 from a former student who was sexually assaulted by a staff member.

Actor and theater artist Laura Stearns is one of 17 people who filed civil suits against the Children's Theatre Company for abuse they suffered as children while students in the theater company's school. Stearns' case was the first to go before a jury.

She claimed the company was negligent in hiring Jason McLean, the actor and teacher who raped her at his home in 1983.

A Hennepin County jury found the theater company "generally negligent" during the time period leading up to her assault, but not specifically negligent for hiring McLean. The jury decided that McLean, not the theater, should pay Stearns $3.68 million in damages.

But McLean fled to Mexico two years ago, taking his cash with him. It's unlikely Stearns will see any money.

Last Friday, the theater company filed an application for "taxation of costs." That's what happens when the winner of a lawsuit asks the loser to pay for costs associated with the lawsuit, not including legal fees. The application listed $295,000 in expenses, including more than $214,000 for an expert witness.

The Children's Theatre declined requests for an interview for this story. But in a written statement, management stressed it was not asking Stearns to pay the total sum, but simply presenting a comprehensive list of costs and leaving to the court the question of how much Stearns should pay.

Stearns' attorney, Molly Burke, pointed out that filing for taxation of costs is optional; the Children's Theatre didn't have to do it.

"Children's Theatre absolutely chose to do this against Laura after a verdict where they were found negligent," she said. "So, there's a message that's being sent there, too, where she exercised her right to a fair jury trial and now they're seeking costs against her. And every other plaintiff is watching that."

Burke said the theater's move is designed to have a chilling effect on all the other former students who have filed suits. Children's Theatre management said it's taking this action only because Stearns and her legal team have filed motions seeking to overturn the original verdict and hold a new trial.

Over the weekend, Stearns took to Facebook to call for a boycott of the Children's Theatre Company. She said the theater's management is sending a clear message to all victims to keep their mouths shut.

"Everybody wants to say, 'Your case is about what happened 35 years ago. It's old news,'" she said in an interview. "This is not old news. This happened Friday. This is now. This is the people that are running that organization today, making choices to attack a victim of child sexual assault that happened at their institution."

Allegations of child sexual abuse at the theater first came to light in the 1980s. The theater's co-founder, the late John Clark Donahue, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three boys and was sentenced to 10 months in a workhouse.

But Stearns has said Donahue and McLean are just two of many staffers who were complicit in the sexual abuse that took place at the theater over a period of years, and that the extent of the abuse has never been fully investigated until now.

She said it's only because of the passing of the Minnesota Child Victims Act in 2013 that she and her peers felt empowered to come forward. That law temporarily suspended the statute of limitations on charges of sexual abuse.