Ex-counselor told to pay $375,000 in coerced adoption
PHILIP J. LaVELLE
The San Diego Union-Tribune
A former pregnancy counselor was hit with a $375,000 punitive-damage award yesterday by a Superior Court jury that concluded she coerced Krista Stoner into giving her baby up for adoption in 1989.
Bonnie Jo Williams was stunned by the verdict and said it would probably lead her into an uncertain future and bankruptcy.
"I don't know how it cannot lead to that," she said after the jury left.
The verdict came one day after the same panel determined that San Diego Pregnancy Services committed fraud and misrepresentation in Stoner's case. The jury ordered the service to pay Stoner $275,000.
Stoner's lawyer, Milton J. Silverman, declared yesterday that the verdicts will send a message to other pregnancy centers that counsel women against abortions to end their "hidden, secret agenda."
"We have pregnancy centers being held out to be what they aren't," Silverman said. "We have women being lured to these centers, and I think the message is for that to stop."
Stoner alleged in a civil lawsuit that she turned to the pregnancy center's Oceanside offices for help when she was 19, pregnant, unmarried and homeless.
She contended that Williams pressured her into giving her baby up for adoption and that she was coerced into signing adoption papers while she was hospitalized and under the influence of Demerol.
Today, she has no hope of gaining custody of her child, Elizabeth, who is now 4 and living with her adoptive parents in Tennessee.
Under the glare of TV lights, Stoner said: "I'm just glad that I won, and that it doesn't hurt other people out there."
Despite the financial awards, Stoner said, "Nothing can take the pain away."
The other side contended Stoner was to blame, and that she was addicted to methamphetamine in 1989 and didn't know whom the child's father was.
"I'm not responsible for her losing her child," Williams said. "Nor am I responsible for the first 19 years of her life."
Williams said she has no idea how she'll pay up. "I've worked eight and a half years for a not-for-profit organization," she said. She and her husband own a house in the North County.
She declined to elaborate further on their financial situation, but insisted they have no means to pay. The couple is not insured against such an assessment.
Jurors interviewed afterward said they realized the award was high for an individual, but said they thought Williams had earned the penalty.
"We discussed that," said juror Brian Cook, a warehouseman and landscaper who lives in Poway. "The majority felt that she should have thought of that."
The vote was 9-3 in favor of the $375,000 award. It followed the jury's conclusion that Williams had committed intentional fraud, a finding that opened her up to punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter wrongful behavior.
The jury forewoman, Carol Brown, said the jury differentiated between Williams and the pregnancy center. "We felt that she had gone off on a tangent on her own," Brown said, explaining that Williams violated agency policies in the Stoner case.
Joel Incorvaia, the pregnancy center's lawyer, said the $275,000 award -- if upheld -- may force the center into bankruptcy. "It's a nonprofit organization. Its annual budget, I don't think, exceeds $125,000," he said.
San Diego Pregnancy Services was founded in 1984 by a group of women who met at a North County evangelical church. The agency's goal is to help women choose not to have abortions, according to trial testimony.
In a separate lawsuit, Planned Parenthood has accused the agency of concealing its anti-abortion stance from women seeking help with unplanned pregnancies.