Jury awards $15 million in civil sexual abuse case

Man accuses city lawyer, a family friend, of abusing him when he was a youth

December 18, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A city jury awarded $15 million yesterday to a man who said he was sexually abused as a youngster by a Baltimore lawyer who was a friend of the family.

Michael E. Wenzel, 22, sued John A. Brooke in Circuit Court, claiming that Brooke forced him to perform sex acts from the time he was 11 until he was 16.

Wenzel had sought $6 million in damages. But after six days of testimony before Circuit Judge John N. Prevas and three hours of deliberations, the jury awarded him slightly more than $15 million - $14 million in punitive damages, $1 million for pain and suffering, and $50,000 for future counseling and therapy.

Brooke, who has not faced criminal charges in the case, countersued Wenzel for defamation. The jury found against Brooke on that point.

"I'm exhausted but elated, proud and really satisfied with the message that that kind of verdict sends - the fact that nobody should be able to get away with this kind of thing," said Wenzel, a student at Garrett College in Western Maryland.

In a brief telephone interview, Brooke scoffed at the allegations and the jury award.

"They ain't getting it from me. I don't have $15 million, and I don't know anyone who does," Brooke said. "I personally thought the whole suit was outrageous, particularly given my medical situation."

Brooke said he has been in poor health for years. He declined to disclose his age. One of Wenzel's attorneys, Deborah Eisenberg, said Brooke was in his 60s.

Brooke was suspended from practicing law last year for reasons unrelated to the abuse allegations. He was indefinitely suspended in April last year for drafting a will in which he was named sole beneficiary, according to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland.

Wenzel grew up in Parkville and became acquainted with Brooke, a fellow parishioner at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fells Point, after the lawyer represented his mother in a divorce, Eisenberg said.

When Wenzel was 11, Brooke started taking him on overnight trips to a vacation home on the Eastern Shore, Eisenberg said. Wenzel said Brooke started abusing him on those visits, which lasted until Wenzel was 16.

Wenzel did not tell anyone about the alleged abuse for years, but he confided in his girlfriend in 2001. Then, at her urging, he told his parents, Eisenberg said.

Wenzel said he would like criminal charges to be brought against Brooke, but he pursued a civil case first because the statute of limitations for that type of case - which would have expired when he turned 21 - was fast approaching. He filed the lawsuit in June last year, shortly before his 21st birthday.

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