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Jury rejects damages for teen assaulted by teacher

ELLSWORTH -- A Pierce County jury deliberated less than four hours last week before deciding to award no damages to a teenager who was sexually assaulted by a female substitute teacher when the boy was 13.

In July 2008, Ann Knopf, now 44, Ellsworth, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault of a child related to encounters with the Prescott boy in 2007 when he was a middle school student. She was sentenced to nine months in jail and five years on probation.

In October 2008, the boy's father, Christopher Brekken, filed a civil suit against Knopf and her husband, asking for monetary damages. The suit alleged assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and said the boy suffered "depression, guilt, shame and generalized anxiety" as a result of the abuse.

The civil complaint also said the woman's actions "passed the boundaries of decency and (were) utterly intolerable to the civilized community," and her husband had a duty as a homeowner, spouse and parent to avoid exposing the boy to risk of harm in the Knopf house. The husband was later dismissed from the case.

After a three-day trial that ended Jan. 16, jurors answered a 21-question verdict form, finding Knopf's conduct was "extreme and outrageous," and she caused emotional distress to both the boy and his father, but awarded them nothing for battery or emotional distress, or for punitive damages.

The 12-member jury found Knopf did not intentionally cause offensive contact with the boy and she did not intend to cause emotional distress to him or his father.

"These jurors did the right thing," said John Runde, the Wausau attorney who represented Knopf. During a phone interview Friday, Runde said the fact the young man didn't testify during the trial "absolutely" influenced the jury's decisions.

Michael Schwartz, the Minnesota attorney who represented the Brekkens, did not return a call asking for comment. But he said earlier the teen did not attend the trial because he was at college and a mental health expert suggested he not attend because it would be harmful for him.

If jurors had found Knopf had intentionally caused offensive contact with the boy, they would have had to consider whether he consented to the contact and his age would have become a factor because he was not old enough to give legal consent, said Runde. "But it never happened because they didn't get that far."

"Don't get me wrong -- nobody condones this," said Runde of his client's actions in 2007. "She went to jail for it."

But, he said, Brekken's attorney didn't meet the burden of proof to merit damages in civil court.

"It is offensive contact. We're not saying that it's not," said Runde. But, he said, what happened did not meet civil-court legal standards for battery or for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In answering one of the 21 questions, jurors said Knopf's conduct was "extreme and outrageous."

"Yes it was extreme and outrageous," said Runde. "We admitted that."

But, he said, as jurors agreed the emotional distress was not disabling for either the boy or his father.

The jury also found $2,600 would fairly compensate the father for his son's past medical expenses related to the assaults and $25,000 would cover the teen's future medical expenses. But because the jury didn't find grounds to sustain the battery claim, Knopf is not responsible for those costs, Runde said.