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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Day-Care Provider Accepts Settlement in Civil Case

May 27, 1999|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just a day before closing arguments in her criminal trial, Simi Valley day-care provider Margaret Major agreed to settle a negligence lawsuit brought by the parents of the child she is accused of abusing.

Major is charged with felony child abuse for allegedly shaking then 11-month-old Jack Read so violently on Sept. 24, 1997, that he nearly died. She has pleaded not guilty.

Court records show that as testimony ended Monday, Major's attorneys and the child's parents appeared in a Simi Valley courtroom to wrap up a $220,000 civil settlement before Superior Court Judge Glen Reiser.

Under terms of the agreement, Major and her business, Major Family Day Care, agreed to purchase a $150,000 annuity that would pay more than $2,000 a month to the injured child for 10 years after his 18th birthday.

Major also agreed to immediately pay Jennifer and David Read $70,000 to cover lawyers' fees, litigation and other expenses.

The Reads' Los Angeles attorney, Peter Cathcart, said Wednesday the settlement was purposely reached before the end of Major's criminal trial because of concerns on her ability to pay.

"If Margaret Major is convicted, then her insurance coverage would probably disappear," Cathcart said. "So therefore, there were some serious considerations given to resolving the case."

The Reads sued Major, 49, in March 1998, six months after their son was hospitalized with severe head injuries that some doctors diagnosed as the result of so-called "shaken-baby syndrome."

The civil lawsuit accused Major of negligence in her care of Jack, and asked the court to award monetary damages of at least $150,000 to cover the boy's medical expenses.

Major's San Francisco-based lawyers filed a response to the lawsuit in May 1998 denying the allegations.

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In subsequent court papers, the lawyers asserted Jack's injuries were the result of a fall at home the night before he was hospitalized, a fall in which they said Jack hit his head on a hardwood floor.

It is the same defense that Major presented last week during the criminal trial.

Major was charged last year with child abuse plus an allegation that she had inflicted great bodily injury to Jack. She has pleaded not guilty and faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted by a jury.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Blair told jurors that Major lost her temper and violently shook the baby, causing devastating injuries that cannot be explained by a slip-and-fall accident.

Blair cited testimony offered by Jack's neurologist and two experts on shaken-baby syndrome, all of whom told the jury Jack's head trauma was caused by violent shaking.

But defense attorney Richard Hutton told jurors the prosecution's case against his client is based entirely on speculation, saying no one saw Major shake Jack.

Hutton questioned the prosecution's theory that Major lost her cool, arguing an 18-year child-care provider is used to coping with fussy babies.

Major told police that Jack, who had been in her care just three days, screamed while she was changing his diaper and then went limp in her arms. She called 911 and the child was rushed by ambulance to Simi Valley Hospital.

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Jack was later airlifted to Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, where he was treated for severe head injuries. Now 2 1/2, the boy is permanently brain-damaged.

During Major's trial, no testimony was offered on the child's prognosis. But documents in the civil case file describe the boy as having "mild cerebral palsy" and a predisposition for learning disabilities.

Doctors who have treated Jack since 1997 said he has a short attention span and trouble with his motor skills, but has good social and language skills. They recommend ongoing therapy and full inclusion in elementary classes when he starts school.

One report said Jack has a normal life expectancy, but is at risk of future medical complications and loss of income as a working adult.

The civil lawsuit was set for trial next month, though lawyers on the case recently told a judge more information-gathering remained.

The case was put on hold last year by Judge Joe Hadden after Major's attorneys requested a protective order shielding their client from giving a deposition.

Major asserted her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination based on the fact she was facing identical allegations in a criminal court.

According to court records, Hadden granted the protective order and postponed the civil case until after the criminal proceedings.

But this month the Reads filed a compromise that outlined proposed settlement terms, completed by Reiser on Monday.

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