In a split decision, an Orange County jury Monday found that Chapman University intentionally deceived students about the quality of its fledgling law school, but it decided not to award the students financial damages.
The verdict caps a six-year legal battle that erupted when students realized that the school's lack of American Bar Assn. accreditation might require them to attend a fourth year of law school.
Jurors ruled that Chapman misled students about the qualifications of its faculty and the impact the lack of accreditation could have, but held that the students were not economically damaged. The school won accreditation in 1998, in its third year and before any of the plaintiffs graduated.
"I'm jubilant," Chapman President Jim Doti said. "At times, it seemed like it would have been easier to settle. But we felt we were in the right."
Before the jury reached its verdict, Judge Raymond J. Ikola ordered Chapman to repay students their tuition costs for a year, amounting to about $18,000 for full-time students and $13,000 for part-timers, the students' attorneys said.
That ruling represented a bittersweet victory for students, who had hoped to win punitive damages.
"Given what could have happened, they've [Chapman] dodged a very big bullet," said Charles J. Greaves, attorney for five of the plaintiffs in this trial and an additional 12 whose cases are pending.
Jurors said they were reluctant to award damages in part because many of the students had graduated and moved on to successful careers. Seven are practicing law.
"Chapman made some mistakes, yes, but most of the people that went to the law school are better off now," said juror Debbie Maxwell. "They went to a school that they knew was unaccredited. They took a risk. They gambled, and they won."
Jennifer Keller, the university's lawyer, called the jury's verdicts "a complete victory for the university."
Because the trial involved 11 students, it plodded along for five months, with dozens of witnesses and nearly two weeks of jury deliberation.
The delays proved fortuitous to Keller and her family. Because the trial lasted longer than expected, Keller postponed a trip to Boston in which she was ticketed to return Sept. 11 on United Flight 175, one of the commercial jets that crashed into the World Trade Center.
It was unclear what impact Monday's verdict would have on the students with cases still pending. In all, 47 students sued Chapman.