NYC Settles Lisa Child Abuse Suit

New York Law Journal , October 1, 1999
By Daniel Wise

New York City yesterday agreed to pay $985,000 to the estate of Lisa Steinberg, who was beaten to death in 1987, to settle claims that city agencies had failed to protect her from child abuse.

Six-year-old Lisa Steinberg was pummeled to death in 1987 by Joel Steinberg, at the time a criminal defense lawyer. Mr. Steinberg, who had custody of Lisa for her entire life but never adopted her, was convicted of first- degree manslaughter in 1989 for killing her. He remains in jail.

In the suit settled yesterday, Lisa's biological mother, Michele Launders, who paid Mr. Steinberg $500 in 1981 to find an adoptive home for Lisa, sued the City — as well as Mr. Steinberg and his abused live-in companion, Hedda Nussbaum — for failing to take action to protect Lisa after receiving clear warnings that she was in danger.

After Lisa's death, Ms. Launders was appointed administratrix of her estate, and she brought the lawsuit in that capacity. As Lisa's closest relative, Ms. Launders is expected to receive the bulk of the settlement.

Jury selection in the case was schedule to start on Monday, but instead an intense four-day negotiation began, concluding yesterday, according to Ms. Launders' lawyer, Joseph Famighetti, of Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman in East Meadow, L.I.

The negotiations were supervised by Acting Justice Martin Shulman, and he is expected to approve the accord, lawyers close to the case said.

Ms. Launders strongest claim may have been against the Board of Education. She was prepared to prove, Mr. Famighetti said, that a student teacher in Lisa's first grade classroom in Greenwich Village had told the teacher in charge that she had observed "bruises in various stages of healing" on Lisa. That teacher had failed to file a report of suspected child abuse as is required to do under the law, he asserted.

Child welfare workers and police officers had both been to the family's West 10th Street apartment and seen evidence of abuse but failed to act on it, Mr. Famighetti said.

But, Eugene Borenstein, the chief of the Tort Division for the City Corporation Counsel's Office, said that the City acknowledged no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement. "It was in the taxpayer's interest to settle the case rather than face a punishing verdict, reflecting the jurors' anger at what our co-defendant, Mr. Steinberg, had done."

Ms. Launders had originally demanded $100 million in damages.

A default judgment was entered against Mr. Steinberg on the issue of liability based on his criminal conviction. Mr. Steinberg, who is serving a term of 8 1/3 to 25 years, has had several requests for parole denied, and is due to come before the parole board again in January.

Mr. Famighetti vowed to pursue an inquest on damages against Mr. Steinberg if he ever comes out of prison.

Ms. Nussbaum, who testified against Mr. Steinberg at the murder trial, was allowed to settle the civil suit by agreeing to pay $500 to a charity of her choice, as long as it is dedicated to helping abused children. The payment will be made on the 12th anniversary of Lisa's death, Nov. 5.

A great deal of evidence emerged during the three-month criminal trial that Mr. Steinberg had abused Ms. Nussbaum before he beat Lisa to death.

The lethal blows were struck on Nov. 1, 1987, but Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Nussbaum waited 12 hours before summoning emergency aid from St. Vincent's Hospital. Lisa was taken to the hospital, where she died three days later from severe brain injuries.

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