$345M awarded to Darlington School abuse survivors

5 insurance companies ordered to pay damages
The Darlington School campus in Rome, Georgia. The school's insurers have been ordered to pay $345 million to 20 former students who say they were sexually abused by a teacher in the 1970s and 1980s. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Darlington School campus in Rome, Georgia. The school's insurers have been ordered to pay $345 million to 20 former students who say they were sexually abused by a teacher in the 1970s and 1980s. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A Floyd County judge has awarded $345 million to 20 men who say they were sexually abused as students of the Darlington School in Rome, ordering five insurance companies that provided coverage to the school to foot the bill.

The ruling came Monday in Floyd County Superior Court, seven years after the private school began investigating allegations of historic abuse that occurred between 1974 and 1994. It follows a $6 million settlement that ended the abuse survivors’ claims against the school and a subsequent settlement resolving claims against the alleged abuser – former teacher and dorm supervisor Roger Stifflemire.

“It was a huge surprise,” Chris Gaba, one of the plaintiffs, said Tuesday about the ruling. “It was a positive surprise. Honestly, I’m still processing it. It does give me a great deal of vindication.”

Gaba attended Darlington School from 1978 to 1981. He now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He said the ruling is meaningful in that it acknowledges the hurt he and other students experienced. Gaba said telling his story through the litigation process after keeping it a secret for so long has helped him heal. He also shared his experience with members of the school’s governing board.

“I wanted them to see me,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I wanted them to hear it directly from me, what happened. I think the more as a victim survivor of something like this you can talk about it, the more healing there is.”

Darren Penn, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the agreements with the school and Stifflemire cleared the way for damages to be claimed against the insurance companies that had issued policies to the school during the years of abuse. He said the insurers tried unsuccessfully to convince the court that the policies did not provide coverage for the abuse, and will likely appeal the judgment.

“All along we felt pretty strongly that there was coverage under these policies,” Penn told the AJC.

The plaintiffs were all students of the school in the 1970s and 1980s, Penn said. One is deceased and his estate is pursuing damages on his behalf. The other 19 men live in Georgia and elsewhere.

Brent Bell, the head of Darlington School, said in a statement provided to the AJC that inappropriate contact by anyone responsible for the care and wellbeing of students is not tolerated. He said the school’s current policies “are focused on respectful boundaries, training, communication, and reporting procedures for both students and faculty, and are meant to create a safe environment for our students to learn, grow, and excel.”

“While we cannot undo the past and we realize that the scars left by Roger Stifflemire’s abuse during his tenure at Darlington from 1974-1994 may never fully heal, we hope that this will be another step in the healing process for the courageous group of survivors who came forward, shared their painful stories and helped expose the truth,” Bell stated Tuesday in reference to the judgment.

The bulk of the award – $232 million – must be paid by Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company. Zurich American Insurance Company must pay $92 million, The North River Insurance Company and Northern Insurance Company of New York must each pay $10 million, and Continental Casualty Company owes the remaining $1 million. Interest on the judgment started accruing Monday.

An attorney for Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company confirmed it plans to appeal. Attorneys for the other insurers did not immediately respond Tuesday to questions about the ruling.

Stifflemire, now 83, never publicly acknowledged abusing students and was not prosecuted. His attorney did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the allegations.

The school removed Stifflemire’s name from a plaque that honored “memorable” and “influential” teachers, and in 2022 unveiled a new monument dedicated to the victims of sexual abuse at the school.

In her ruling Monday, Judge Adele Grubbs said Stifflemire had threatened students with expulsion and other penalties if they did not cooperate with his sexual and emotional abuse. She said one of the plaintiffs was expelled during his senior year after trying to resist, and that he was awarded his high school diploma as part of the school settlement.

“None of the individual plaintiffs told others of these acts, and they thought that they were the only one going through this abuse and torment,” Grubbs said. “The evidence in the record shows that Darlington was first notified in 2016 by one party.”

A survivor who shared his story with the AJC in 2017 said he had reported the abuse to his mother, who notified the school in 1988. He said the school was already aware at that time about Stifflemire’s conduct, and did nothing.

Darlington agreed as part of its settlement to provide a hotline for abuse claims, records show.