A bitter legal battle over the 2009 death of 10-year-old Seth Ireland ended Thursday when Fresno County agreed to pay $1.35 million to the boy’s father and stepbrother.
The settlement was announced Thursday by Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian, who represents Seth’s father, Joseph Hudson.
“This was an extremely emotional case for the plaintiffs,” Paboojian said. “Settling the case is a step forward in closing a chapter in this most tragic case.”
Paboojian praised Fresno County officials for “reaching out and resolving this case.” He also said he set out what he wanted to do – bring heightened awareness to child abuse.
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Hudson will receive about $900,000, Paboojian said. Seth’s stepbrother, who witnessed Seth being killed, will get the rest.
County officials and their lawyer, James Weakley, declined to comment Thursday. But Paboojian said the settlement means the county has no blame or liability in Seth’s death.
In his lawsuit, Paboojian accused county Child Protective Services officials of hiding a report that he said proves social workers were negligent in the death of Seth, who died in January 2009 after being beaten by his mother’s boyfriend.
Even without the report, Paboojian was able to prove his case against CPS. In February 2013, a Fresno County Superior Court civil jury decided that CPS was partly responsible for Seth’s death because social workers did not properly investigate the boy’s situation.
In awarding $8.5 million in damages, the jury assigned the county 65 percent of the blame for Seth’s killing (or $5.525 million in damages). Lebaron Vaughn, who was convicted of killing Seth, was given 25 percent blame, and Seth’s mother, Rena Ireland, was assigned 10 percent.
The county appealed the judgment, and in September 2015, the 5th District Court threw out the $8.5 million verdict and ordered a new trial. But in its ruling, the appellate court ordered the county to release the report. After several more court battles, the county released the report in February.
The settlement voids a second trial that was scheduled to begin in October.
Authorities say Seth’s tragic death could have had statewide legal implications because child social workers are largely immune from lawsuits that challenge their discretion, due to the complex nature of their work. If Paboojian had won his lawsuit, it could have opened the legal door to more lawsuits when social workers are found at fault.
The lawsuit attempted to distinguish that the wrongdoing was not how social workers handled Seth’s case, but that they ignored him. “Their failure to take necessary actions to protect the minor resulted” in his death, the suit charged. “The failures of CPS employees constituted a breach of duty for which there is no governmental immunity.”
Seth lived in a southwest Fresno apartment with his mother and Vaughn and his siblings. Child Protective Services had opened a case on the home after receiving a half dozen reports of abuse, according to court documents. At one point, Rena Ireland and Vaughn asked authorities to take Seth and his half-brother into protective custody. The request was denied.
On Dec. 29, 2008, Seth was hospitalized after being punched and kicked repeatedly by Vaughn. He died Jan. 6, 2009.
Vaughn was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the crime. Seth’s mother was given six years for enabling Vaughn.
In past court appearances, Weakley said the county didn’t want to release the report about Seth’s death because doing so would have a chilling effect on social workers and others who investigate a child’s death under CPS care. Following a long legal battle, Paboojian declared victory after he received the report in February.
The county countered by filing a motion to move the case out of Fresno County, arguing that it could not get a fair trial because of “adverse and inaccurate” media attention as well as misinformation from Paboojian. The motion was scheduled to be heard May 11. But with the settlement, the motion is moot.
“I’ve devoted seven years to this case,” Paboojian said Thursday. “We know what happened in the first trial,” he said, referring to the $8.5 million verdict. “But would I get the same result in the second trial?”
The report released to Paboojian said an investigation revealed that months before Seth was killed, neighbors had called police and social workers frequently after they heard Seth and his siblings yelling “Stop” inside their home. Seth and his family also had repeated contacts with law enforcement, hospital representatives and school officials – who are legally required to report abuse – but social workers didn’t know about the attacks on Seth until after he was brutally beaten, the report said.
But the report also said social workers had a difficult task in determining who was causing the abuse – Rena Ireland, Vaughn or Hudson – because Ireland and Hudson were in a bitter custody battle. The report also says social workers were not contacted by the law enforcement, mental health and hospital officials who dealt with the family.
In 2008, social workers were contacted several times regarding Seth and his siblings. (There were three other children, ages 7 years, 5 years, and 2 months, in the home, the report says.) The callers mentioned physical and emotional abuse and neglect of Seth and his siblings by his mother, her boyfriend and Hudson, the report says.
In one incident on Aug. 17, 2008, Rena Ireland accused Hudson of spanking Seth 20 times. The report says Rena Ireland took Seth to the Sheriff’s Office to file a report, but the boy told the deputy that his mother hit him. Rena Ireland was arrested for child abuse “but was released and returned home with Seth that night.”
Seth also feared his father, the report said.
The boy told a social worker that Hudson spanked him with a belt, often on his bare legs. “Seth reported that his father left marks on his legs that lasted two weeks. Seth also reported that his father and his father’s wife smoke crack,” the report said.
Superior Court records show Hudson has a lengthy criminal record. In March 2013, he was sentenced to three years of probation and to a county work program after he pleaded no contest to drunken driving, resisting arrest and driving without a license. Later that year he was arrested on suspicion of residential burglary, then twice for drunken driving.
In January 2015 he pleaded no contest to two drunken driving charges and reckless driving and was sentenced to 16 months in prison. As part of a plea agreement, the April 2013 residential burglary charge was dismissed, the records say. Hudson currently has a pending misdemeanor charge of brandishing a weapon.
In his final analysis of the case, Paboojian said Thursday, it was prudent for both sides to settle.