Rhine Law Firm, P.C., is proud to announce that a judgment of over $140 million in damages has been reached against former New Hanover County high school chemistry teacher Michael Kelly for sexual abuse of his students. The 14 plaintiffs that our firm represented in this case had all previously been students at Isaac Bear Early College High School and Laney High School in Wilmington.
The judgment, which was announced by Superior Court Judge Phyllis Gorham on November 8, 2023, includes around $35 million in compensatory damages and more than $105 million in punitive damages.
An earlier settlement of $5.75 million had been reached in June 2023 with the New Hanover County Board of Education for negligence in retaining and supervising Kelly for many years.
New Hanover County Board of Education Fails to Follow Protocol and Protect Students
During the period from 2003-2018, Kelly allegedly committed 59 felony sex crimes against students at Isaac Bear Early College High School and Laney High School in Wilmington.
The deeply disturbing accusations include sexually explicit conversations with students, exposure to pornography, and sexual acts with a child.
Separate criminal proceedings revealed that superintendents Rick Holliday and Tim Markley investigated Kelly for sexual misconduct in 2006, but did not alert law enforcement, as mandated by child protection laws.
The district, although not issuing an apology, has committed to enhancing its policies and procedures, and expanding training to recognize and report sexual abuse.
Kelly, arrested in 2018, pled guilty in June 2019, received a 17-year prison sentence with a scheduled release in 2035.
Impact of Sexual Abuse Persists for Victims and Their Families
Jeffery Dion from the Zero Abuse Project conducted a thorough estimation of damages, including economic and noneconomic costs, for the 14 plaintiffs. These costs encompass projected psychological treatment expenses and lost earnings, as well as pain and suffering based on such factors as severity of the crimes, duration of exposure, presence of photo or video evidence, and the enduring impact of the abuse.
The victims, diagnosed with various forms of trauma such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, alcohol abuse, hypersexualization, or suicidal tendencies, continue to struggle daily, with one victim’s mother tragically taking her own life upon learning of her son’s abuse.
Rhine Law Firm Proud to Serve Justice and Help Deter Future Abuse
The verdict reflects the maximum settlement that could have been secured under North Carolina law.
“Sometimes Lady Justice swings her sword for mercy; sometimes she swings her sword for vengeance. Today we’ll be asking that she swing the sword for vengeance,” said Martin A. Ramey, partner of Rhine Law Firm, in anticipation of the court’s judgment. Ramey prepared the case along with Rhine Law Firm’s Elise Wilson and Lea/Schultz attorney Mary Charles Amerson.
The attorneys hope the default judgement will not only bring some closure to the plaintiffs, but will also serve as a warning to other predators—that they are not above the law, and that school districts that look the other way are complicit.
“We need to deter anyone who would ever think about doing this to a child, who would ever think about allowing this in our school system,” added Wilson. A civil lawsuit against Peter Frank, another former New Hanover County teacher in prison for abusing students, is still ongoing.