County defends OCY in lawsuit over teen’s death
BY ED PALATTELLA
The death of Brittany Legler spurred a series of investigations that reached similar conclusions: the Erie County Office of Children and Youth erred in the case, and OCY had to change.
Five years later, Erie County government is taking a different stance, at least in court: OCY did nothing wrong.
The county’s insurance company is making that claim as it defends OCY in a federal civil-rights suit over the case of Legler, a mentally disabled 15-year-old who died after her adoptive mother, Lisa Iarussi, beat her at their Millcreek Township residence on May 9, 2004.
The suit, in federal court in Erie, is a reminder of how deeply the Legler case affected her family and OCY.
With the family heartbroken and the district attorney and two consecutive county executives leading the way, OCY underwent unprecedented scrutiny after Legler’s death.
The result was new leadership and other changes meant to rid OCY — in the words of a national child-welfare group — of a “toxic environment” and “a culture of disrespect.”
The report of that group, the Child Welfare League of America, is one piece of evidence Legler’s estate plans to present if the suit goes to trial.
The estate in 2006 sued OCY and eight employees.
Legler’s estate is arguing OCY acted with “deliberate indifference” by arranging Iarussi’s adoption of Legler in 2001 and by not fully investigating repeated allegations that Iarussi was abusing Legler in 2003 and 2004.
The county, through its insurance company, St. Paul Travelers, is arguing that OCY acted appropriately.
The county’s expert witness is a former child-welfare official from Illinois, whose report is docketed.
“It is my overall opinion that the efforts of the Erie County Office of Children and Youth to protect Brittany Legler from child maltreatment during 2003 and 2004 were reasonable and were by no means deliberately indifferent,” the expert witness, John Goad, wrote in his report, for which the insurance company paid him $11,125.
“Any suggestion that, from the information available to OCY, Brittany’s death should have been foreseeable is ridiculous.”
Judge to rule on dismissal
U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin is presiding over the case. In his latest ruling, in April, he gave the lawyer for St. Paul Travelers, Edmond Joyal, of Pittsburgh, until June 15 to file a motion seeking to dismiss the case.
The lawyer for the Legler estate, Paul Susko, will have 45 days to respond, and McLaughlin will rule later on the dismissal request.
Joyal did not respond to a telephone call seeking comment. The administration of County Executive Mark DiVecchio, who took office in January 2006, declined to comment, citing the pending suit.
A lawyer unconnected to the case said an attorney for an insurance company is in control when representing a municipality, though the municipality has input.
“The lawyer has the authority to go into court and make whatever decisions are reasonable, based on what is in the insured entity’s best interest and based on the facts,” said Gerald Villella, deputy solicitor for the city of Erie. “The client is always the one that is represented, not the insurance company, which is paying.”
The county’s policy limit under the St. Paul Travelers liability policy is $2 million per incident. The county has no deductible, and its total annual premium for the liability policy, according to county records, is $84,400.
The Legler estate is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a decision that would deter the type of conduct the estate claims occurred in Legler’s case.
“We are looking forward to presenting Brittany’s case at trial as soon as possible,” Susko said.
The Erie County Coroner’s Office ruled the cause of Legler’s death as a pre-existing heart condition aggravated by abuse. Millcreek police on May 19, 2004, charged Iarussi with aggravated assault and related counts, and she later pleaded no contest to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child in Legler’s death.
Iarussi, now 40, was sentenced in December 2004 to seven to 14 years in state prison. She is at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, near Williamsport.
‘Everything was not fine’
According to court records, Joyal is building the county’s defense around Goad’s report and the contention that OCY workers never had enough evidence to determine that Legler — who had 212 cuts and bruises on her body when she died, a cauliflower ear and a previously broken rib — suffered from abuse.
Evidence from the criminal case and other probes showed that school employees contacted OCY 10 times in the 13 months preceding Legler’s death.
A state-mandated local committee faulted OCY for not holding face-to-face meetings with Millcreek Township School District officials about their complaints of suspected abuse of Legler.
“Don’t think we are just saying everything was fine,” Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk, a member of the committee, said in June 2005, commenting on the report.
“It was not. Everything was not fine.”
The Millcreek school employees have been deposed in the Legler suit.
The estate’s lawyer, Susko, said in court records that “some of these witnesses who called OCY about Brittany will testify that the OCY personnel seemed to be annoyed or irritated as to repeated calls about the same subject.”
The administrators of Legler’s estate are Charles Hayes and Victoria L. Hayes, the legal guardians of Legler’s adoptive sister, Abby Iarussi, who was 8 years old at the time Legler died.
“Brittany Legler’s death was entirely preventable,” Susko said in court records, “and would not have occurred if the OCY personnel named as defendants in this matter performed their duties correctly.”
The county disagrees.
“No professional person in regular contact with Brittany … had substantial evidence that she was being abused,” Goad, the expert witness, said in his report.
“Even if OCY had obtained every bit of information that every one of these providers had, it would have not been sufficient to verify abuse, much less remove Brittany from Ms. Iarussi’s care.
“Sadly, no child welfare agency will ever prevent every tragedy.”
Staff writer Lisa Thompson contributed to this report.
ED PALATTELLA can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.