A Los Angeles jury determined this week that the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) must pay out $45 million to the family of special needs twins after a behavioral aid at a Malibu school was found to have physically abused the two autistic seven-year-olds.

The lawsuit, filed back in 2019, alleged a school district employee at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School in Malibu, Galit Gottlieb, used corporal punishment including physical restraint, physical abuse and intentional battery against the two special needs second graders. On Thursday, Oct. 20, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found in favor of the plaintiffs.

The incidents described in the case occurred during the 2017-18 school year and were initially reported by a bus driver at the District, who said she witnessed Gottlieb physically restrain and punish the students by putting hand sanitizer on their cuts.

The plaintiffs in the case, Charles and Nadine Wong and their two sons, were represented by David W. German of Vanaman German LLP and Omar Qureshi: Qureshi Law PC.

“District administrators failed the twins by allowing them to be abused for months despite clear warnings they were being harmed,” German said in a statement provided by his law office.  “Even now, they refuse to acknowledge the extent of the harm their employee caused. Fortunately, the jury saw through their continued attempt to cover-up what occurred.”

According to the case, the twin boys experienced “significant challenges with respect to communication, behavior and adaptive skills as a result of their diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Both children had “extremely limited” communication capabilities.

Both Gottlieb and the SMMUSD were named as defendants in the complaint, together with a slew of other administrators whom plaintiffs alleged shirked their legal duty to report abuse. Those included Pamela Herkner, then-principal of Juan Cabrillo; Elizabeth Sciutto, a district administrator; classroom teacher William Brown; Special Education Coordinator Kristopher C. Vegas; Special Education Director Pamela Kazee; and Assistant Superintendent Mark Kelly.

In response to the court decision, SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati issued a statement indicating the District believed the verdict “was not justified.”

“We are working with our legal team to explore options to respond to what we believe to be a verdict that was not justified by the evidence presented,” Drati said in the statement provided by the School District. “We are committed to and care about our students, especially those with disabilities. We respect the judicial process and recognize that the trial is only the first phase. We look forward to continuing the process to ensure that justice is served.”

Drati later issued a revised quote calling for an independent review:“This decision sends a clear message that student well-being must always be a priority, and we agree completely with this value proposition; however, the Board of Education feels that the amount awarded is excessive given the facts of the case, so we will asking for an independent review of the decision.”

School Board Members Laurie Lieberman and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein also issued statements expressing concern over issues raised in the lawsuit and calling for an independent review.

A spokesperson for the School District added, “any settlement in this case will be covered by insurance and not from the District’s general fund.”

emily@smdp.com