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Mother Wins Lawsuit Against Hotel for Showing Gay Porn on TV

by Cody Lyon

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 6, 2007

On October 12, 2007, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury awarded Edwina McCombs, a Tennessee resident on vacation with her two daughters, then aged 8 and 9, $85,000 after the two little girls were unintentionally exposed to hardcore pornographic material in a Value Lodge motel room in the suburban town of Artesia. According to the plaintiff law firm, the material had included "close up images of people engaged in sodomy and homosexual acts."

"She first went to the police, where she was informed that there is no law in California that prohibits the showing of pornography to children" and "she would have to bring a civil action," said Elliot F. Krieger, one of Ms McCombs' attorneys from Jarvis & Krieger law firm in Long Beach.

The jury held the motel was liable since it allegedly didn't have "lock outs" to pornography on its television screens. The award was based on McCombs' claim of emotional distress and negligence.

Unlike most hotels, where guests go through a pay-per-view system for adult movies, Artesia's Value Lodge readily broadcasts porn over a particular channel on its TV screens free of charge. The motel claimed warning signs were in place in the rooms. Further, according to the hotel's lawyer, if guests requested that the material be blocked during check in, or if the front desk saw children with parents, employees could block the movies.

But allegedly that's not what happened at Value Lodge the night Edwina McCombs checked in on Aug. 3, 2006. Instead, while McCombs was in the bathroom and assumed the two girls were watching children's shows, they knocked on the bathroom door and told their mommy that something was terribly wrong.

In a cultural landscape where cable and broadcast networks are littered with reality television dripping with innuendo and sexual couplings, suggestive music videos and celebrity crotch shots, some might find the idea that someone could win thousands of dollars after two children are exposed to a few minutes of pornography ridiculous.

A Right-Wing Victory?

On the other side, social conservatives bent on seeing an elimination of what they see as the takeover of our culture by porn, are calling the California verdict a victory over ubiquitous sleaze.

They can now point to a brave mother who took it upon herself to stand up, protect her children and who ended up a warrior in the war on porn. But beneath the initial reporting and touting of triumph over titillation, clues point to a sad, disturbing story and what is very possibly a frivolous exploitation of the civil justice system.

"This is an interesting and somewhat scary story," said Marjorie Heins, founder of The Free Expression Policy Project in New York.

Heins, who wrote "Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship and the Innocence of Youth" said that given today's political climate, the hotel probably should have been more fearful about allowing access to the adult channel. But she argued that the verdict was scary, because "the notion that someone can be held liable for showing a movie, based on the psychological harm is supposedly caused puts all creative expression in jeopardy."

Artesia, a suburban city in Southeast Los Angeles is best known for its Little India neighborhood. The Value Lodge on Artesia Boulevard offers rooms for $60 to $65 dollars a night. The motel offers a three-hour rate of $45. Regardless of what an hourly rate implies, the motel has the appearance as a "family hotel" according to those involved in the civil action. A police spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that covers the area wouldn't say whether the hotel has a high incidence of complaints.

The motel had appeared to be a decent spot to spend the evening for McCombs and her children, Krieger said. . She had been planning on visiting a friend in the San Fernando Valley that evening, but was to tired to go that far.

Max Chiang, who defended motel owner Charles Su, describes himself as Christian. But Chiang's scenario differs widely from the way the case is being portrayed among anti- pornography groups. McCombs, who had run into some money from her 2005 divorce, is a longtime resident of Los Angeles who recently moved to Tennessee with her two daughters to enjoy the lower cost of living. She had decided she preferred California and was looking to move back and a potential financial windfall from this case would enable that, he maintained.

He says the original amount that McCombs and her lawyers asked for to cover the damages was around $400,000. The motel owner, he says, didn't have that kind of money, and instead offered $50,000 to settle the case.

Krieger said McCombs had no intention of moving back to California. He wouldn't not say the exact amount of money he was originally seeking, only that it was more than $85,000. Apparently in anticipation of a large settlement in a jury trial, McCombs then mortgaged her home in Tennessee to pay mounting psychological evaluation bills.

"She did mortgage her house-she did it because she wanted the best treatment for her daughters and that treatment is expensive," Krieger said. By the time of the trial, in October, McCombs had spent over $29,000 in psychological evaluation costs alone, an amount her insurance company refused to pay.

That money was paid by VISA credit card to Yorba Linda California Forensic/Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Michael Perrotti, who also happened to testify as an expert witness in the trial. According to court transcripts, Perrotti received $1,500 per day for his testimony. (A hotel management expert also testified.)

How Objective Is 'Expert Testimony'?

Paying experts to testify in trials has long evoked controversy, but most agree that it's a necessary component of winning a state civil case. "Even the most careful, thorough, honest experts will typically only be willing to participate in the trial process if they are compensated," said Jennifer Mnookin, a professor at the University of California Law School who specializes in evidence and expert theory. But she also criticizes the widespread use of the practice.

On his website, Dr Michael J. Perrotti lists extensive treatment and expert evaluation experience as well as a long list of testimonies at civil and criminal trials. He has also worked as a forensic consultant on the television program CSI. In addition, Perrotti advertises that he offers biblical counseling. He also lists among his honors an award for soliciting large donations to the Republican Party.

During the trial, Perrotti testified that he had spent around 100 hours with multiple clinical interviews, background, history and mental status examinations of the two young girls as well as the mother and father.

The girls themselves were dressed head to toe in white. "They looked like little angels from above," Chiang said.

Perrotti testified that McCombs' daughters had been traumatized by the exposure to pornographic material. After a number of clinical tests, he says he found psychological symptoms that included dissociation; symptoms related to-but still not meeting-the criteria for diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD; and that the two girls' thinking had become sexualized. While Dr. Perrotti only said there were symptoms similar to PTSD, the very use of the term is bound to raise questions.

Dr. Steven J. Berokowitz, assistant professor at the Child Study Center at Yale University, has done extensive work with child and trauma. He also serves as medical director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence as well as director of the Intensive-In Home Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Service.

"While we like to say that events cause symptoms of PTSD, that's just not true," Berkowitz said. "There are events or experience that are 'likely' to cause PTSD than others. Rape is high on the list. So is torture. But it's much more what we bring to the event."

'How long were these girls exposed to pornography?' 'Minutes.'

The best predictor of a diagnosis of PTSD is a history of child abuse, he added, even in soldiers. As it turns out, during testimony Perroti revealed that the younger daughter had been sexually molested by an older child cousin a few years earlier and that might have contributed to her traumatic reaction to the pornographic material.

During friendly questioning from Leejanice Toback, another of McCombs' lawyers, Perrotti stated that the two girls would need at least two to four more years of therapy to deal with the PTSD-like symptoms and "remove" the harmful images now implanted in the girl's heads. The cost of the future treatment for the girl and their Mother would be more than $150,000.

Berkowitz agrees that exposure to pornography can be a very disturbing experience for a young child and can cause traumatic symptoms. Berkowitz said it would be impossible for him to fully evaluate this particular case since he did not have all of the background information.

He added, however, that the 100 hours of evaluation in the pre-trial preparation was suspicious and the cost and time for future therapy, even if the child was diagnosed with PTSD symptoms in relation to the trauma would probably not approach two years or $150, 000. "Six months to a year tops," he said.

In alternately graphic and tedious courtroom testimony, Perrotti described in detail a litany of destructive psychological symptoms beyond PTSD that he attributed to the brief exposure to pornographic material. "She described having something like a concussion, things went black, and then she was in the sky and the clouds with her (stuffed) animals looking down on herself--kind of to get away from the traumatic event," he said in the courtroom. "It was so terrifying to her."

The flurry of references to the children's use of the word pornography sparked Judge William J. Birney's curiosity. "It strikes me as somewhat strange that an 8-year old in her very first contact with you when you were interviewing her comes up and uses the term 'pornography'" the judge said. "She must have heard that from somewhere"

Perrotti explained that since the daughter was part of a legal case and the fact that the Mother was impacted she was bound to learn the word. "I never heard it out my grandchildren of the same age" answered the judge, evoking laughter in the courtroom.

With that, Perrotti made a point that this was exactly the real issue in this case. He stated that before the incident, the two young girls did not talk about sexual things. "A tomboy and a boy kissing was no big deal. Now they are thinking about two boys kissing. Now they are thinking about French kissing. So their thinking has become sexualized," Perrotti said.

Berkowitz believes the sexual orientation of the porn would not make much of a difference. "It has more to do with how graphic the material was," he said.

Legal experts caution against equating homosexuality with pornography. "Pornography, and the harm it might cause children, should be assessed in an even-handed way that doesn't rely on distinctions drawn to sexual orientation," said Douglas NeJaime, Assistant Professor at the Williams Institute at UCLA.

Perhaps a more key aspect to this case might have been Ms McCombs reaction to the incident. According to Perrotti, a therapist in Tennessee had indicated Ms McCombs had a "histrionic" personality. "That means she dramatizes things," he said. Still he added, "I think her feelings are normal as far as a mother who's children are exposed to such a thing."

In the trial, it came out that McCombs had been diagnosed with symptoms of depression, she'd had anger management counseling, and she also exhibited hysterical traits and she too, had been molested as a child. "The kids are already highly stressed, things sound chaotic after the divorce, the mother's histrionics," Berkowitz said. "All of these things can contribute to a child's reaction."

One of the more interesting aspects of Perrotti's testimony is his assessment of the impact of pornographic material. He cited studies of adolescents in which repeated exposure to pornography increased sexual violence and aggressive behavior in boys. He cited his expertise in the evaluation of sexual offenders, for whom one of the risk factors is pornography. He also said that paraphilia ("abnormal sexual behavior") can develop out of pornography and that can lead to dangerous behaviors.

Homosexuality was once listed as a paraphilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders. Currently, the list includes a number of fetishes some might consider as simply kinky.

Once again, the judge was curious. "Doctor, how long were these girls exposed to pornography in that one incident?" Judge Birney asked.

"I believe it was minutes," Perotti replied. Perrotti did not respond to numerous requests for an interview for this story.

In the end, although Edwina McCombs was awarded $85,000, she may well have ended up in the hole. She had already paid Perrotti over $30,000 for evaluations and testimony. And then there are the legal fees and court costs--and "hotel expert" Alan Snyder, who expressed his disbelief that a family hotel didn't have protective measures.

Max Chiang claims that the jury awarded the money it did because it felt sorry for the young girls, so they basically awarded enough to cover part of the pre-trial costs, and expenses. Still, a number of conservative organizations are touting the case as a triumph.

Such organizations have been targeting hotels that show adult films for years. Groups like Citizens for Community Values, led by self-described former porn addict Phil Burress, saw success in Cincinnati back in 2002 after engaging in what it called sting operations at three area hotels. They say that resulted in the elimination of adult pay-per-view films. Recently, CCV put the pressure on LodgeNet Entertainment Corp, a supplier of television, on-demand movies and Internet access to around 1.8 million rooms in 9,300 hotel properties in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

This past August, a group of 13 organizations--including Family Research Council and Concerned Women of America--formed an alliance specifically targeting hotels that offer adult films. The alliance took out a full page ad in some editions of USA Today asking the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate whether some pay-per-view films in hotels violate federal and state obscenity laws. The coalition had also developed a new website, Cleanhotels.com, a directory of "family friendly" hotels and motels where adult entertainment was not on the menu.

About a month before the Value Lodge case in California went to court, the anti-porn group Lighted Candle Society announced Family Fragments.com, a site meant to serve as an informational port for the organization led by former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese and former California Lieutenant Governor John Harmer. During an August 2007 appearance on Michael Reagan's radio talkshow, the former lieutenant governor said the Lighted Candle Society intended to attack the pornography industry using civil litigation. In addition to utilizing existing obscenity laws, the group has said it would attempt to present scientific evidence that shows pornography causes physiological and psychological harm, much of this "evidence" based on the research of people like former Captain Kangaroo singer and producer Dr. Judith Reisman.

Lighted Candle's Harmer recently co-authored the book "The Sex Industrial Complex: America's Secret Combination; Pornographic Culture, Addiction and the Human Brain." Here, the authors charge, among other things, that homosexuality has become a huge part of pornography, asserting that the Abu Gharaib prison torture scandal was porn inspired.

Although there is no tangible proof that points ot Edwina McCombs' lawsuit being connected to groups like the Lighted Candle Society, reaction by these groups to the verdict was swift. 'We've been in close contact with the lawyers in this suit," according to Family Fragments.

"If this hotel is made to pay for this kind of activity, other hotels might be subject to a lawsuit," threatened Pat Trueman at Alliance Defense Fund, on the Focus on the Family Citizen Link website. Janet Folger, of Faith to Action, told Citizen Link that she believed the decision would send shockwaves and go a long way in protecting children.

Cody Lyon is a New York freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of national daily newspapers and New York weeklies. Lyon also writes a political opinion blog at http://codylyonblogolater.blogspot.com