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Supco orders new trial in boarding school suicide

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MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court has ordered a new trial in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the mother of a 16-year-old Colorado girl who committed suicide at a Montana boarding school for troubled teens.

A Sanders County jury decided in October 2010 that World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools of Utah and its founder, Robert Litchfield, were not negligent in the October 2004 death of Karlye Newman, the Missoulian reported Friday.

Newman hanged herself with a sweat shirt after six months at the now closed Spring Creek Academy Lodge near Thompson Falls.

Her mother, Judith Newman, sued WWASP and Litchfield for wrongful death, negligence, breach of contract, fraud and deceit. WWASP provided the policy and procedure manual for Spring Creek Academy Lodge.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that retired Justice John Warner, who was brought in to hear the case, wrongly barred the jury from hearing evidence that other WWASP-affiliated schools were shut down and investigated for abuses.

"We conclude that the District Court abused its discretion when it limited the evidence concerning negligence to what Karlye knew and what happened to Karlye," Justice Patricia Cotter wrote. "The District Court determined it appropriate to admit evidence of what Karlye knew, but exclude evidence of what the defendants knew" about other suicide attempts at affiliated schools and conditions at Spring Creek.

Cotter added that, "Without this information, the jury could not determine whether it was foreseeable to these defendants that Karlye was at risk of injury while a student at Spring Creek."

James Manley of Polson, one of several attorneys representing Judith Newman, said the ruling means they'll get to retry the case "with all the evidence this time."

Newman filed her initial lawsuit in 2006. It went to trial in 2010 after dismissals and out-of-court settlements whittled the list of defendants down to WWASP and Litchfield. Spring Creek, which settled with Newman, closed in 2008.

Her lawsuit claimed the school misled her about her daughter's progress and condition, ignored signs that she had become suicidal and contributed to her death through a series of harsh punishments that included solitary confinement and refusing to allow the girl to have any contact with her parents.

The defendants argued Newman failed to disclose previous suicide threats by Karlye before she was enrolled at Spring Creek and that Newman signed off on Spring Creek's methods prior to enrolling her daughter. The defense said Spring Creek wouldn't have accepted Karlye had it known about the earlier suicide attempts.

However, the school's brochures indicated the facility was suitable for suicidal youths, the Supreme Court noted.

WWASP, which provided the policy and procedure manuals for several schools was the subject of other lawsuits, including a federal lawsuit involving 353 parents and former students who accuse the firm of assault, battery, false imprisonment, fraud and racketeering.

Newman's case will be remanded back to District Court. Manley said he will ask for a new judge.

Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com