Friday, August 21, 2009

Mother sues over bus driver's sex abuse of daughter

Mother of mentally challenged woman sues bus driver accused of fondling her daughter
by Jennifer Golson/The Star-Ledger

Sunday August 16, 2009, 12:30 PM

HUNTERDON COUNTY -- The mother of a mentally challenged Hunterdon County woman is suing the bus driver accused of fondling her daughter on several occasions and the man's former employer.

The complaint, filed recently in Superior Court in Flemington, accuses Califon resident Gary Sherratt, 69, of inflicting emotional distress and battery for abuse the then-28-year-old woman allegedly suffered between late 2007 and the first five months of 2008, on her way home from a job training program. Her name is being withheld by The Star-Ledger because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault.

Easton Coach Co. is accused of negligence for failing to investigate Sherratt before hiring him, according to the lawsuit filed by Phillipsburg-based attorney Edward Glynn on behalf of the victim's mother.

Easton has a contract with the county and transports individuals with disabilities, such as the alleged victim, the lawsuit states.

The victim functions on the level of a 12-year-old, Glynn said. She told her mother about the alleged abuse, and the mother notified authorities, the lawyer said.

Sherratt "basically sexually molested a mentally incompetent person," Glynn said in a telephone interview. "This happened a number of times, where he would take everybody else to their residences and drop them off, and he would have to go out of his way to do it," ensuring that the victim was the last passenger, the lawyer said.

Sherratt called the claims "absolutely false."

"I was the least likely to have done it," he said.

Sherratt was charged with one count of third-degree aggravated criminal sexual contact, said Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Brian Shevlin, who represented the state. Authorities narrowed the time period for the alleged assaults to between March 1 and May 28, 2008. Sherratt did not plead guilty, but he was admitted into the pretrial intervention program for two years.

Sherratt said he only applied for PTI because his lawyer advised him to, "on the assumption that it could go either way, because of the circumstances."

Joe Scott, president and chief executive officer of the company based in Easton, Pa., said company officials are aware of the situation. He declined comment on the lawsuit, saying he has not seen it.

The 7-year-old company has several public contracts working with transportation authorities or county agencies, Scott said.

Once they learned of the investigation, "our standard procedure is to take him out of service, with a complaint of that type and magnitude," he said. Sherratt was suspended with pay during the investigation, which lasted about six months.

Sherratt no longer works for the busing company, Scott said, and it is unclear what will happen after he completes the PTI program. "He's not officially terminated, but we would not employ somebody who was in that type of program," Scott said.

Easton is still the road operator for Hunterdon County's Community Transportation system, the LINK, said Pamela Pontrelli, county human services administrator. Hunterdon paid them about $2.7 million in 2008.

The victim was one of the passengers with disabilities whom Sherratt transported to a day program in Flemington, according to the lawsuit. On various occasions, he "inappropriately and illegally" touched the victim, committing battery, the lawsuit states.

The victim "sustained psychological harm and injuries, severe emotional distress and other injuries of a severe nature, requiring extensive treatment/counseling," the lawsuit says.

Easton Coach "was negligent in failing to investigate defendant, Gary Sherratt, prior to hiring him, failing to monitor his actions while on the job, failing to properly supervise him while on the job, failing to investigate him after hiring him, and was otherwise generally negligent in allowing Gary Sherratt to become involved in circumstances and settings where he was able to accomplish the illegal and improper acts," the lawsuit says.

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