In short: The Western Bulldogs could face further lawsuits over sexual predator Graeme Hobbs who volunteered at the club after it was ordered to pay $5.9 million in damages to one of his victims, Adam Kneale.
What’s next? The club is appealing the Supreme Court jury verdict, which could cause further financial pain if they lose again.
It was hailed as “an earthquake” in the Australian legal system.
A Victorian jury’s landmark decision to award $5,943,151 in damages to sexual abuse survivor Adam Kneale will pose questions of how many aftershocks will follow for the Western Bulldogs.
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Mr Kneale took the club to court, alleging its hierarchy was negligent when paedophile volunteer Graeme Hobbs roamed the Western Oval and targeted vulnerable children four decades ago.
The Bulldogs fought the case — and have already foreshadowed an appeal — saying it did not breach its duty of care towards Mr Kneale.
The Victorian Supreme Court civil jury saw things very differently after sitting through three weeks of evidence, some of it graphic and harrowing.
Adam Kneale was a water-boy at the club when the abuse started at the age of 11.
The $5.9 million payout it ordered was about $2.5 million more than what Mr Kneale’s legal team had asked for, a result that left his own lawyers stunned.
Of the $5.9 million awarded by the jury, $3.25 million in damages was awarded for pain and suffering.
‘Excessive’ payment could be argued, lawyer says
Angela Sdrinis, a personal injury specialist and member of the Law Institute of Victoria, said the previous highest amount awarded by a judge for pain and suffering in a child abuse case was only $525,000.
Ms Sdrinis said she expected that to be a factor in the upcoming appeal.
“Jury verdicts can be hard to overturn but I anticipate the argument will be that the verdict was manifestly excessive,” she said.
Adam Kneale (right) with his lawyer Michael Magazanik (left) after the Supreme Court verdict was handed down.(AAP: Con Chronis)
The total payout to Mr Kneale topped the $5.3 million in damages awarded to a Tasmanian sexual assault survivor, and $3.7 million that another Victorian Supreme Court jury awarded on Friday to a person who sued the Catholic Church.
“It’s an earthquake in the legal system for sure,” Mr Kneale’s lawyer Michael Magazanik said on Thursday.
Mr Magazanik said there could be further lawsuits against the club.
“I have no doubt that there were other victims at the Western Oval in the early 1980s, and I suspect we’ll see some shortly.”
One alleged victim took to the stand in Mr Kneale’s trial and backed up his story. That man also said Hobbs abused him at the club’s headquarters.
“His hands were all like octopus, you know. Just all over the place,” the man said.
Hobbs abused ‘a substantial number of children’
A 1993 police investigation into Hobbs turned up disturbing evidence that suggested Mr Kneale’s case was only the tip of the iceberg.
Damien Christensen, who has risen to the rank of Victoria Police inspector, worked on the case three decades ago and said material seized from Hobbs’s home led officers to believe there were “potentially many other victims associated with the Footscray Football Club”.
“We collected two boxes of photographs of primarily young boys in school uniforms, in football uniforms, in sexually explicit positions,” he told the trial.
Graeme Hobbs, now dead, was involved in fundraising at the Footscray Football Club in the 1980s and early 1990s. (Supplied)
Mr Christensen said Hobbs was open about abusing “a substantial number” of those children.
“He’d met them through football and the football club, and other means through other children.”
Hobbs, who is now dead, was jailed the following year.
Bulldogs to borrow funds to pay damages
As things stand, the total cost to the Bulldogs is likely to rise above $7 million once legal fees are factored in.
During the trial, Bulldogs’ barrister Jack Rush KC asked chief executive Ameet Bains how the club would fund the payment of damages if it lost.
“We would need to borrow,” Mr Bains replied.
The club recorded a total profit of $5.2 million last financial year, and Mr Bains said it had $29.2 million in the bank as of October 2022.
However $16.5 million of that balance is state government money earmarked for its development of the Western Oval, now known as the Whitten Oval.
“I think even in the current context of funding our redevelopment, if you do the maths on those numbers we’re still short,” Mr Bains said.
Hours after Thursday’s verdict, the club released a statement saying it would appeal.
A newspaper court report from the Western Times in 1994 on the case of Graeme Barry Hobbs. (Supplied: Adam Kneale)
The Bulldogs now will likely head to Victoria’s Court of Appeal, seeking to overturn the jury’s verdict altogether or look to reduce the damages payout to Mr Kneale.
Another loss could prove disastrous for the club if they are forced to pay interest on the $5.9 million penalty.
On Thursday, Mr Magazanik said he expected the legal battle with the club to continue.
“They fought Adam every inch of the way. I wouldn’t expect them to accept the umpire’s verdict,” he said.
Ms Sdrinis said it was likely Mr Kneale would not receive the compensation payout until the case was finalised in the Court of Appeal, but said sometimes partial payments were negotiated while the appeal was pending.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC