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Montana Supreme Court orders new trial in suicide at Sanders County boarding school
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Montana Supreme Court orders new trial in suicide at Sanders County boarding school

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THOMPSON FALLS – The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new trial in a lawsuit that accuses a Utah company and its founder of playing a part in the suicide of a 16-year-old girl here.

A Sanders County jury took less than two hours in October 2010 to decide that World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools Inc. and its founder, Robert Lichfield, were not negligent in the death of Karlye Newman.

Newman hanged herself with a sweatshirt on Oct. 7, 2004, after six months at Spring Creek Academy Lodge, a boarding school for troubled teens that was a member of WWASP.

But Montana’s high court said retired Montana Supreme Court Justice John Warner, who was brought in to hear it after the third District Court judge assigned to the case retired, was wrong to bar the jury from hearing evidence outside of what the dead girl knew, witnessed or was within her general knowledge.

“We conclude that the District Court abused its discretion when it limited the evidence concerning negligence to what Karlye knew and what happened to Karlye,” Justice Patricia Cotter wrote for the majority. “The District Court determined it appropriate to admit evidence of what Karlye knew, but exclude evidence of what the defendants knew. This analysis is contrary to our case law.”

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“It’s good news,” said James Manley of Polson, one of several attorneys representing Karlye’s mother, Judith Newman. “It means we get to retry it with all the evidence in this time.”

That includes, he said, evidence concerning other WWASP schools that were shut down by regulators and investigated for abuses, and information about what happened to other students in the so-called “tough-love” institutions.

Warner’s ruling had said admitting such evidence was “highly prejudicial” against the defendants.

But, Cotter wrote, “Without this information, the jury could not determine whether it was foreseeable to these defendants that Karlye was at risk of injury while a student at Spring Creek.”

That evidence, which will be allowed in the new trial, points to Judith Newman’s contention that WWASP should have recognized what might happen to her daughter if Spring Creek – which closed its doors in 2009 – continued its allegedly harsh treatment and punishments of Karlye, according to Manley.

“The retrial will be a very different kind of case,” Manley said.

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Judith Newman, who paid $3,000 a month to send her daughter to Spring Creek, filed the original lawsuit in 2006. Through dismissals and out-of-court settlements, a long list of defendants was whittled down to WWASP and Lichfield before it went to trial in 2010.

In the lawsuit, Judith Newman contends the WWASP-affiliated school misled her about her daughter’s progress and condition, ignored signs that the girl had become suicidal, and contributed to her death through a series of harsh punishments that included multiple periods of solitary confinement and refusing to allow the girl to have any contact with her parents throughout her stay.

The defendants, represented by San Francisco attorney William Kronenberg, say Judith Newman failed to disclose previous suicide threats by Karlye before the girl was enrolled in Spring Creek Lodge Academy, and signed off on Spring Creek’s methods prior to enrolling her daughter.

Reports say that WWASP, which is said to have generated as much as $90 million per year from the tuition for the many schools it operated or was associated with, is no longer in business, but still exists on paper so that its insurance company will continue to pay its attorneys.

WWASP is the subject of several lawsuits besides Newman’s. The largest is a federal suit involving 353 parents and former students who accuse the firm of assault, battery, false imprisonment, fraud and racketeering.

Judith Newman is suing for wrongful death, negligence, breach of contract, fraud and deceit. She is asking for unspecified damages, although Manley told the Sanders County jury Karlye’s life was worth at least $5 million, and that other damages could tack on another $1 million.

The 2 1/2-week trial rivaled the 2 1/2 -week incest trial of Douglas Guill in 2008 as the longest in Sanders County history.

Manley said the case will be remanded back to District Court some time in the next 10 days, and Newman will ask for a new judge to be assigned, which either side is allowed to do after a successful appeal.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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