$220 Million Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Ottawa Catholic School Board Over Management of Teacher Convicted of Sexual Assault

Two former students of St. Matthew Catholic Secondary School in Ottawa have filed a $220 million class action lawsuit against the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) and former teacher Rick Despatie, also known as Rick Watkins, for sexual abuse of students by the latter and the management of the former. of it.

Despatie was convicted last September of four counts of sexual assault, four counts of sexual interference, two counts of criminal harassment and one count of sexual exploitation. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Despatie is appealing his conviction.

According to a statement of claim filed in December, the suit alleges that the school board received numerous complaints about Despatie’s actions over many years, but refused to act on them.

“The Board and school officials at St. Matthew Catholic High School actively and aggressively downplayed, diminished and dismissed multiple complaints made about Despatie. This was due, in part, to the fact that Despatie had close personal relationships with these officials. schoolchildren, including (former vice principal) John Purificati,” the statement said.

The statement of claim also accuses the school board of failing to preserve and maintain documents and records related to complaints about Despatie and failing to train staff on how to properly handle complaints of misconduct by a teacher.

The two lead plaintiffs, identified as Jane Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2, were students in Despatie’s seventh-grade math class, one in 2014 and one in 2016, but the class action lawsuit is expanding to all students at Despatie. St. Matthew Catholic. High School who were sexually assaulted by Despatie between January 1, 1989 and April 30, 2021.

The lawsuit alleges that Despatie touched Jane Doe #1’s thighs, breasts and neck. He told his mother, who complained to Assistant Principal John Purificati, but the lawsuit claims he did not conduct an investigation or report the complaints to the school board or police.

Jane Doe #2 makes similar complaints against Despatie and reported his conduct to Principal Debbie Clark, who allegedly failed to conduct an investigation or report the complaints to the school board or police.

Although they are identified in the lawsuit as assistant principal and principal, respectively, of St. Matthew Catholic High School, Purificati and Clark are not named as defendants in the class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that by continuing to employ Despatie when it knew or should have known of his actions, the Ottawa Catholic School Board breached its duty of care to students.

Against Despatie, he says that he, as a teacher, was in a position of authority over the students, who were minors at the time, and had a duty of care and a fiduciary duty to act in their best interests and that his actions violated that. duty. .

“By making sexually inappropriate comments and inappropriately touching and/or fondling Jane Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 and members of the Student Class, Despatie committed the tort of sexual assault and breached his fiduciary duty and duty of care that is owed to Jane Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 and the Class of Students,” the statement of claim says.

The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages from Despatie for sexual assault, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of trust, breach of trust and negligence. It also seeks $25 million in aggravated damages, $25 million in punitive and exemplary damages, and $10 million in damages for the victims’ families.

It also seeks $50 million in damages from the OCSB for Despatie’s actions and for the school board’s alleged failure to comply with the Occupant Liability Act and alleged deterioration of evidence. He also asks the board for $25 million in aggravated damages, $25 million in punitive and exemplary damages, and $10 million in damages for the families.

Additionally, the lawsuit seeks from both Despatie and the OCSB special damages, including lost wages, loss of earning capacity, out-of-pocket expenses, and cost of care for the plaintiffs in an amount to be determined.

The OCSB provided the following statement to CTV News Ottawa:

“We recognize that there is an ongoing lawsuit. The case has been referred to the Ontario School Boards Insurance Exchange (OSBIE), where specialized legal counsel is overseeing the legal proceedings. The School Board has no direct control over the timelines for these procedures.”

The school board says it intends to defend itself against the lawsuit.

In Despatie’s defense, he says the plaintiffs’ claims are “egregious and vexatious” and he intends to defend against them. He intends to represent himself, as he claims that he does not have the means to hire legal representation.

Despatie disagreed with the line in the statement of claim that says he was found guilty of sexual assault and sexual interference related to allegations by four students who were under 16 at the time of the crimes.

The victims suffered continuous pain

The statement of claim says that Janes Doe #1 and #2 have suffered and continue to suffer harm caused by Despatie’s actions, including emotional, physical and psychological harm, chronic anxiety, suicidal ideation and self-harm behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder , eating disorders, intense flashbacks and nightmares, difficulties trusting authority figures and engaging in sexual relationships, and a general loss of enjoyment of life.

“As a result of Defendants’ unlawful conduct, Jane Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 and the Class of Students never reached their true academic or vocational potential, and/or experienced a delay in their entry into the workforce and/or “have experienced more of a disrupted and unstable employment history. Jane Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 and the class of students have therefore suffered economic losses in the form of loss of income, loss of economic opportunity, and loss of competitive advantage.” , the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit says Despatie and the OCSB were selfish, high-handed and callous in their conduct and deserve the court’s condemnation.

With files from CTV News Ottawa’s Graham Richardson

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