Eappens aim to make Woodward pay

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The Independent Online
JUST ONE day after the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that British au pair Louise Woodward had reached the end of criminal proceedings in the death of Matthew Eappen, the first page was turned in a civil suit filed by the baby's parents.

Lawyers for Deborah and Sunil Eappen went before the US District Court in Boston yesterday to initiate the case. As a first step Judge William Young granted a temporary 12-day injunction barring Woodward from spending any money earned from selling her story in the United States. She must notify the family and court of any contract she signs through book, film or newspaper deals. The court order would not affect any deals in England.

Judge Young said the Eappens had a strong case and reasonable chance of winning the wrongful death case, scheduled for 5 October, against Woodward.

Over the longer term, the Eappens will be seeking compensation and punitive damages from Woodward. While the sums involved were not specified in the filing, they could theoretically run to tens of millions of dollars. Applying any ruling to Woodward in Britain, however, would be complicated.

The civil trial could last months and reopen many of the wounds from last year's criminal trial. Woodward was represented at yesterday's injunction hearing by a new lawyer who will represent her in the suit, a well-known Boston civil defence lawyer, Norman Zalkind.

The Eappen family have announced the creation of the "Matty Eappen Foundation". Any money won in the case, the family said, would go to the foundation to fund child abuse research.

"We want to do all we can so this never happens again," said Matthew's mother, Deborah Eappen. "If there is any financial gain from this case, it should all go toward educating people about child abuse, about shaken baby syndrome."

Mrs Eappen, who, with her husband was staying with relatives in Chicago yesterday, added: "There is right and there is wrong. It is wrong for her to profit in any way from what she did to Matty. What she did was wrong, for her to benefit financially would be so wrong."

The suit, which was filed on Monday less than two hours after the Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling on the criminal case, raises echoes of the OJ Simpson saga.

He, too, faced civil wrongful death suits after his criminal trial and was finally ordered to pay damages totalling $33.5m (pounds 20.5m).

Winning a civil suit against Woodward should be much easier. Mr Simpson was acquitted of all criminal charges. Woodward faces her civil trial convicted of manslaughter. Moreover, while prosecutors in Woodward's criminal trial had to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the civil case needs only to demonstrate a "preponderance of evidence" that she was responsible for Matthew's death.

Whether the Eappens would prevail over Woodward once she is in Britain, beyond American jurisdiction, was less certain. Legal experts said the family, if they succeed in their US civil suit, would then have to go before a British court before any funds could be collected or before any ban on her making money from the case could be enforced.

Also ordered to appear at yesterday's injunction hearing was the junior lawyer sacked earlier this month from Woodward's defence team, Elaine Whitfield Sharp. Ms Sharp has been cited in news reports as complaining that while Woodward was a lodger in her home she was working behind her back with her mother, Susan, to secure book and newspaper contracts.

The Eappen lawyers were expected to submit copies of British newspaper articles to the court purporting to detail efforts that the Woodward family may have made to secure such deals.

But Woodward's criminal lawyers insisted she had made no attempt to secure media deals. "It is really unfortunate that this is happening," Barry Scheck commented yesterday. "To my knowledge, there are no such plans and I don't think it's going to happen. Nothing like this has been done by anybody at all."