School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)

Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

By Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince George Citizen

A victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher in the 1980s has secured an apology and $1.1 million in damages from School District 57.

The terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit seeking damages for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Wendell Diakiw, who taught at Austin Road elementary school in Prince George during the 1970s and 1980s.

Had the school district not included an apology, Bruneau said he would have gone ahead with taking the matter to trial. As it stands, Bruneau was pleased with the school district’s response.

“The school district handled it so well and really did the right thing, which is unheard of, and I really want the news to reflect that and set a new precedent for other institutions to do the same,” Bruneau said in an interview.

According to a statement issued Thursday by London, Ontario-based Beckett Personal Injury Lawyers, the $1.1-million payout is understood to be the largest reported settlement of an individual teacher abuse case in British Columbia and will be covered by School District 57’s insurer.

Bruneau was a Grade 6 student at Austin Road when, according to the statement, the abuse began and continued for three years in the mid-1980s.

Bruneau, in turn, played a key role in Diakiw’s downfall.

In 1986, Bruneau, then 16 years old, attended Diakiw’s house with a tape recorder and secured a taped confession, which led to police charges. In 1987, Diakiw was charged with a range of sexual offences in relation to six students, including Bruneau, and was sentenced to five years in jail later the same year.

Bruneau was among four alleged victims for which Aaron Lealess, a lawyer at Beckett, had filed lawsuits against Diakiw and School District 57. The other three have also settled out of court but with the terms undisclosed due to confidentiality agreements.

Court records show that Bruneau’s case was the only one for which School District 57 did not file a response to the civil claim. Each of the claimants had sought as much as $3.2 million in damages.

“At the very beginning of the claim, you just pick a high number – that’s the maximum you could hope for basically, and then once more facts become known – you get all the medical records, education records, Mr. Bruneau was assessed by an expert psychologist – and so once you get all the information together, you get a bit better of an idea,” Lealess said in an interview.

“The plaintiff has their view of what the case is worth which is usually much higher than what the defence has their own view, which is much lower, and then this case was ultimately settled.”

Lealess said it was scheduled to proceed to trial this past November but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “and ultimately we were able to get a settlement.”

Lealess said the $1.1 million represents the damage Bruneau has suffered in terms of the impact on his education and career and the expenses related to a lifetime of counseling, as well as inpatient treatment due to the psychological fallout.

After living away from Prince George for 30 years, Bruneau has since moved back to the city. He expressed a degree of closure with the settlement and particularly the letter of apology.

“It’s a big shift in my thinking too, like the anger,” Bruneau said. “Now it’s a big thank you, I mean that’s a huge difference.”

Diakiw was also named in the lawsuits and has been served but has not filed statements of response. As such, Lealess said they will be pursing a default judgment.

“Now whether we can get a dime out of him is probably doubtful but we’re going to continue to pursue the case against him,” Lealess said. “It’s more for the principal of the matter.”

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