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Clark County settles lawsuit over 3-year-old’s death for $100K

Updated February 26, 2019 - 7:13 pm

The Clark County Commission has approved a $100,000 settlement with a woman who sued for negligence and wrongful death in the 2016 killing of her 3-year-old granddaughter, contending that county child welfare officials botched the handling of an open case.

The victim, named “Abygaile B.” in court documents, died of blunt-force trauma to her chest on July 1, 2016, according to an autopsy. Justin Tom Bennett, the girl’s father from Henderson, was indicted in January 2017 and charged with murder and several counts of child abuse.

The chief prosecutor in the case, in detailing other severe abuse the victim suffered in the days preceding her death, had called the pattern of torture “one of the worst cases of physical abuse I have ever seen.”

The commission authorized settling the lawsuit on Feb. 19 “to avoid any further costs and legal expenses of possible litigation,” according to a staff report. The county on Tuesday declined to comment on the agreement.

Bernadine Morimoto, the victim’s maternal grandmother, sued in District Court on behalf of the victim and two sisters — at least one of whom prosecutors say also was abused by Bennett — alleging that the county’s Division of Family Services failed to investigate several reports of preceding abuse.

About six months before the victim’s death, police reported the children’s physical abuse to Family Services, lawyers for Morimoto say, but child welfare officials improperly flagged the case and assigned it to a nonprofit contractor that provides child welfare services in low-priority matters.

The case worker for HopeLink, the contractor, lacked training and the authority to remove children from custody even if mistreatment was suspected, Morimoto’s attorneys added.

HopeLink and the now-former case worker are named as defendants in the lawsuit and have denied any wrongdoing. Their lawyers countersued Morimoto and other family members, including the victim’s mother, and also sued the county, Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services and the state Division of Child and Family Services, alleging they were negligent in their oversight.

Bennett’s mother, Sherry Morse, was indicted on child abuse charges in September 2017 and accused of failing to protect her grandchildren. That case remains ongoing, court records show.

A lawyer representing HopeLink and the former case manager said Tuesday that the company’s policy precluded it from commenting on pending litigation. Messages left for attorneys representing Morimoto and the Health and Human Services Department were not returned.

Bennett, who has pleaded not guilty, is slated to return to court for a trial readiness hearing on March 28, court records show.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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