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Crouch v. Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, Inc.

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

September 12, 2019

CARRA CROUCH, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
TRINITY CHRISTIAN CENTER OF SANTA ANA, INC., Defendant and Appellant.

          Appeal from a judgment and postjudgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County, No. 30-2012-00577733 Peter J. Wilson, Judge.

          Dykema Gossett, James S. Azadian, Jill M. Wheaton; Winters & King, Michael J. King, Ted J. Nelson; Enterprise Counsel Group and Garrett M. Fahy for Defendant and Appellant.

          Deems Law Offices, Joseph E. Deems; Dunlap, Bennett & Ludwig and David R. Keesling for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          OPINION

          FYBEL, J.

         INTRODUCTION

         Carra Crouch, at age 13, was drugged and raped by a 30 year old employee of Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, Inc. (TCC) while she was in Atlanta, Georgia to participate in a TCC sponsored telethon.[1] When Carra returned to California, she and her mother, Tawny Crouch, went to see Carra's grandmother, Jan Crouch, who was a TCC officer and director and was responsible for overseeing the telethon. When Tawny explained to Jan Crouch what had happened to Carra in Atlanta, Jan Crouch flew into a tirade and yelled at Carra that she was stupid, it was really her fault, and she was the one who allowed it to happen. Carra was devastated.

         Based on Jan Crouch's conduct, the jury awarded Carra $2 million in damages (later remitted to $900, 000) against TCC on her cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). The jury found that Jan Crouch was acting within her authority as an officer or director of TCC when she yelled at Carra. TCC appealed. It challenges the judgment and the trial court's orders overruling its demurrer to Carra's first amended complaint and denying its motions for summary adjudication, nonsuit, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), and a new trial.

         At each stage of the trial court proceedings, and again on appeal, TCC has argued that Jan Crouch's conduct was not extreme or outrageous but was just a grandmotherly scolding or irascible behavior. According to TCC, Carra endured nothing more than insults, petty indignities, and annoyances.

         We conclude that Jan Crouch's behavior toward Carra was sufficiently extreme and outrageous to impose liability for IIED. Yelling at 13 year old girl who had been drugged and raped that she was stupid and she was at fault exceeds all possible bounds of decency. By telling Carra she was at fault, Jan Crouch displayed a reckless disregard for the almost certain emotional distress Carra would, and did, suffer.

         We also conclude the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's finding Jan Crouch was acting within the course and scope of her authority as an officer or director and, therefore, to support respondeat superior liability against TCC. We reject TCC's other arguments and affirm.

         FACTS

         The following facts either are undisputed or taken from the evidence at trial. We refer to Carra Crouch and Tawny Crouch by first name, except when their full names appear in quoted matter, and sometimes refer to Jan Crouch by first name.

         I.

         The Incident in Atlanta

         TCC is a California nonprofit corporation. In April 2006, Carra, who was then 13 years old, flew with her grandmother, Jan Crouch, to Atlanta, Georgia to attend a telethon sponsored by TCC. While in Georgia, Carra planned to visit her cousins Nick and Nathan. She had also received a message from Steve Smith, a 30 year old TCC employee, that he hoped to see her in Atlanta. Nick and Nathan had introduced Smith to Carra, and she had kept in contact with him.

         One evening, Smith made an advance toward Carra at the hotel swimming pool. Carra had never experienced an adult behaving that way toward her and did not understand his intentions.

         Carra returned to the hotel room she shared with her cousin Nathan and changed her clothing. Smith went to the hotel room, and Carra and Nathan let him in. Smith asked if he could “crash” in their room that night. Carra felt a little uncomfortable about letting him stay, but figured he would sleep on the floor.

         Smith brought alcoholic beverages and cigarettes with him and also ordered champagne from room service. Smith, Carra, and Nathan drank and smoked cigarettes. Carra had never smoked and, except for sips of wine given by her grandfather, had never drunk alcoholic beverages before. She drank a glass or two of champagne. While they were drinking, Smith rubbed Carra's leg and told her she was beautiful. Carra felt uncomfortable but did not understand what he was doing or what his intentions were.

         Eventually, Carra lay down on her bed, Smith lay down on the floor, and the lights were turned off. Smith claimed he was uncomfortable on the floor and asked if he could sleep in the bed next to Carra. She felt uncomfortable, but agreed so long as a pillow was placed between them. Smith moved the pillow and tried to hold Carra up against his body. Carra felt uncomfortable. She got out bed and said, “I don't feel good.”

         Smith got up and went into the bathroom. After a few minutes, he returned with what he said was a glass of water. He handed the glass to Carra and told her, “drink this. It will help you feel better.”

         Carra drank the water. It tasted “a little bit funny.” She remembered nothing after that other than waking up the next morning with Smith next to her in bed. Her clothes were disheveled, her pants were off, and she felt sick, shocked, and confused. She went to the bathroom and used a tissue to wipe blood from her vagina. She had not yet started menstruating. She felt sore in her vaginal area.

         II.

         Jan Crouch's Tirade Against Carra on April 24, 2006

         Upon returning to California, Carra told her mother, Tawny Crouch, about what had happened in Atlanta. Tawny urged Carra to talk to Jan Crouch, Carra's grandmother and the family matriarch. Jan Crouch was a TCC officer and director, was the “go to for everybody” and was “running the show.”

         Tawny called Jan Crouch and asked if she and Carra could come see her because something had happened in Atlanta. Jan said sure. Tawny contacted Jan because “she was on the trip with [Carra], ” and “she was the spiritual advisor and the person who had the power to do something.”

         On April 24, 2006, Tawny took Carra to Jan Crouch's home in Newport Beach. Carra was not ready to talk about being raped and asked Tawny to tell Jan what had happened. Tawny told Jan that in Atlanta a TCC employee named Steven Smith had molested Carra. As Tawny started going into the details, Jan raised herself up in her seat and flew into a tirade. Jan yelled at Carra: “How could you be so stupid? How could you drink alcohol? How could you let this man in your room?” Jan eventually said to Carra, “well, this is really your fault” and “you're the one who let this happen.”

         Tawny called a timeout and told Carra to go into another room to wait. Carra went back to the car while Tawny talked privately with Jan Crouch. Jan raged against Tawny, who tried to point out that Carra was just 13 years old. Jan eventually threw up her hands and said, “I can't handle this” and told Tawny to “call Dottie, ” referring to Jan's sister, Dottie Casoria, who was the TCC station manager in Atlanta.

         In the car, Carra broke down. She already was fragile and now felt “broken” after listening to Jan's tirade. Carra already blamed herself and Jan had confirmed those feelings. Tawny returned to the car and told Carra: “This isn't your fault. Please know this isn't your fault. You know, he was a 30 year old man and you're a child.” But Carra was not responsive and, when they got home, she went to her bedroom and broke down.

         III.

         TCC's Investigation

         Tawny followed Jan's instructions and called Dottie “right away.” Tawny told Dottie that Carra had been molested in Atlanta by a TCC employee. Dottie was “very loving and understood.” Tawny also advised John Casoria, TCC's general counsel and Jan's nephew, about what had happened. At Casoria's request, Carra and Tawny prepared a written statement. Tawny told Casoria she did not want the police notified. Neither of Carra's parents notified authorities or took Carra to receive medical treatment or a rape examination.

         Casoria contacted Jan Crouch, and she granted him “‘the authority to take whatever action [he] felt was necessary or needed to protect the best interest of Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, Inc.'” Casoria terminated Smith's employment with TCC and notified the Georgia Department of Labor that Smith's conduct could lead to civil liability and criminal charges. Casoria never talked to Jan about his investigative findings but did ask her for authority to terminate Smith's employment. After Smith's employment was terminated, Casoria sent Jan a written report informing her that “events involving Steve Smith went smoothly.”

         IV.

         Carra's Subsequent Troubled Life

         Carra had a troubled life as a teenager and young adult. She testified she started cutting herself when she was in the eighth grade, “huffed” carbon dioxide at school, and saw a therapist to deal with emotional problems. She testified she “went from one negative situation to the next, one self destructive behavior to the next.” In around 2012, when this lawsuit was filed, she started feeling better; she no longer believed being raped was her fault and stopped living in shame and guilt.

         Calvin A. Colarusso, M.D., is a psychiatrist who testified at trial as an expert on Carra's behalf. He testified that Carra “began to drink and use drugs, ” “cut herself, ” “made a suicide attempt, ” “had sex with approximately ten different boys, ” “had pregnancies at [ages 16, 17, and 19], ” “had two abortions and one miscarriage, ” obtained an alternative high school degree because she could not continue in a traditional school, was involved in “abusive sex, some of which involved alcohol or drugs, ” “worked as an exotic dancer, ” “became pregnant again at [age 22], ” and “had problems eating.”

         Colarusso diagnosed Carra with child sexual abuse and post traumatic stress disorder. He testified: “Carra's chaotic adolescence is definitely due to the sexual abuse and the family's reaction to the sexual abuse, by not telling her it wasn't her fault, by not taking her for a rape exam, by not following up and getting her treatment.” He testified there were three causes of Carra's difficulties as a teenager and young adult: (1) ”she was sexually abused by a 30 year old man”; (2) ”her grandmother blamed it on her”; and (3) ”no one... reported it and took her to get a rape examination, supported her that it was not her fault, and got her the treatment that she needed.”

         Jan Crouch passed away after the lawsuit was filed but before trial.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         I.

         Pretrial

         A. TCC's Demurrer

         In June 2012, Carra filed a complaint against TCC and two months later filed a first amended complaint against TCC, Jan Crouch, and Casoria. The first amended complaint asserted causes of action for (1) IIED, (2) negligence-failure to report, (3) negligence-failure of due care, and (4) vicarious liability.

         TCC demurred to the first amended complaint. TCC asserted the first cause of action failed to state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action against TCC because Carra failed to allege it engaged in any conduct that was extreme, outrageous, and exceeded all bounds of common decency in a civilized society. The trial court overruled TCC's demurrer to the first and second causes of action, sustained with leave to amend TCC's demurrer to the third cause of action, and sustained without leave to amend the demurrer to the fourth cause of action. Carra filed a second amended complaint, which TCC answered.

         B. TCC's Summary Adjudication Motion

         Following discovery, TCC moved for summary adjudication of the IIED cause of action. TCC argued the alleged conduct was not extreme or outrageous as a matter of law, Jan Crouch never intended to cause emotional distress, and Carra could not prove that Jan's conduct caused her to suffer severe emotional distress. The trial court denied TCC's motion. The court found: “In this case, there are triable issues of material fact on what defendant Jan Crouch said to Carra Crouch, its emotional impact on Carra Crouch, defendant Jan Crouch's recommendation to let John Casoria handle this matter, and Tawny Crouch's reliance on this recommendation and letting defendant John Casoria handle this matter, which would include whether a report to law enforcement would be made or not.... Tawny Crouch testified that [Jan Crouch]'s response to Carra Crouch was like a tirade. In addition, here, as generally, causation is a question of fact.”

         C. TCC's Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony

         Before trial, TCC moved to exclude Colarusso's testimony and requested an Evidence Code section 402 hearing on causation. Carra had retained Colarusso to testify and render an opinion on causation, her emotional and psychological injuries and their physical manifestations, her treatment, damages, prognosis, and future care and costs. TCC argued Colarusso should not be permitted to testify whether lack of family support was a cause of harm to Carra because he could not apportion liability to Jan Crouch, as opposed to other family members, without engaging in speculation. Carra argued Colarusso would testify about “the course of [Carra]'s development after the sexual assault would have been different and she would not have had all of the psychological and emotional problems that she had in her life had she been handled appropriately following the reporting of the sexual assault.”

         After conducting an Evidence Code section 402 hearing, the court orally stated that Colarusso “cannot be asked to opine that any action or inaction after the events comprising the IIED and the negligent failure to report, caused or contributed to those conditions or damages” and would not be allowed to opine on what Jan Crouch, TCC, or any family member did or said after April 24, 2006. In a written order, the court ruled that Colarusso would be permitted to testify to (1) ”his observation as to the symptoms consistent with [there] having been a sexual assault or potential rape” and (2) ”the behavior of Jan Crouch was a substantial factor in regards to the [IIED] and negligence claims.” The court ruled that Colarusso “is not to offer his opinion that the 7 years of silence caused or contributed to actions after the alleged incident in Georgia.”

         II.

...


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