Town put teens in harm’s way, sex abuse lawsuit alleges

The Town of Kingsville and former fire chief Robert Kissner, who was convicted in 2019 of sexual offences against three teens and a town firefighter, are being sued for nearly $4 million by one of the victims.

In a statement of claim, the plaintiff — who worked at the fire department to fulfill his high school community service hours and as a co-op student — alleges Kissner used his position of authority and trust as fire chief to cultivate a close personal relationship with him that led to ongoing sexual abuse.

And he alleges that the town either denied the existence of Kissner’s conduct or was “willfully blind” to it, failing to sufficiently investigate allegations against the fire chief and failing to report those allegations to the police.

“It’s probably an ironic analogy, but if a fire is burning that long and smoke is coming out of the window that long, somebody should have taken a look,” said London lawyer Robert Talach, who is representing the victim.

Under an earlier court-ordered publication ban, the plaintiff is identified in the lawsuit only as T.A.W.

The statement of claim was filed earlier this year in Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Windsor.

Talach said allegations made in the statement of claim against the town have not been proven in court and are part of a legal process that allows him to probe the negligence issue at the pre-trial discovery phase of the court proceedings.

“What we say is we’re going to check every closet in the house. Is there something in every closet? Probably not, but is there a closet or two we might find something? Yes, it’s likely, especially in a case like this,” Talach said.

Neither the town nor Kissner had filed a statement of defence as of Wednesday.

The lawsuit is seeking $3.85 million in damages including for pain and suffering, loss of income and for punitive damages.

Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos said he can’t comment on the lawsuit’s allegations. He said the town received the statement of claim in February and the lawsuit is being handled by the municipality’s insurance company.

“That’s where it’s at. It’s not in council’s hands at this time.”

Kissner, who was appointed fire chief in 1995, was arrested in December 2016 on 17 charges involving sexual assault, sexual interference or sexual exploitation against eight alleged victims. He was found guilty in April 2019 of nine charges involving four victims — a firefighter and three students who worked at the firehall. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

In September 2019 Kissner filed an appeal of his conviction to the Ontario Court of Appeal. Two additional charges involving a separate alleged victim were filed in April 2019 after Kissner’s first trial ended but before he was convicted. That case has yet to come to trial.

According to the lawsuit, T.A.W. met Kissner around the year 2000 through his student placement with the fire department. The lawsuit says Kissner became a trusted mentor who T.A.W. admired but who was able to “exert control over him, prey upon him and sexually abuse him.”

The abuse “intensified in nature as time progressed,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says that as a result of the abuse and the town’s failure to prevent it, T.A.W. suffers physical and psychological pain — as well as “feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt” — and has difficulty maintaining employment and close relationships because of emotional trauma. He has suffered from drug and alcohol addiction as well as depression and anxiety and has attempted suicide, the lawsuit says.

Talach said his client “still has different facets of this he struggles with daily. Memories and their effects can intrude on his life with little notice. He’ll have good days and he’ll have bad days.”

Talach attempted to arrange an interview with his client, but T.A.W. did not want to comment on the case.

Employers are automatically responsible for criminal acts in the workplace if the power and prestige they give to an employee allow criminal acts to happen.

During Kissner’s criminal trial, the former fire chief — who was accused of sexual assault and sexual exploitation involving T.A.W. — testified that the sexual contact between the two was consensual and that it was carried out in the context of their friendship, not because he was in a position of authority over the teen.

Justice Pamela Hebner found Kissner guilty of sexual exploitation but not guilty of sexual assault, saying “I frankly do not know who to believe” regarding the issue of consent.

The lawsuit says the town knew or ought to have known that Kissner was engaged in “deviant” behavior but did nothing about it, despite “rumors, concerns and/or reports of misconduct by Kissner from other employees and/or earlier employers.”

The lawsuit also accuses the town of implementing and maintaining “a system that was designed to cover up the existence of such behavior if such behavior was ever reported” and failed to warn employees, co-op students and volunteers who may have come in contact with Kissner “of his propensities once it had become sufficiently aware of his behavior.”

The lawsuit says the town provided Kissner with the opportunity to have regular and private contact with young educational co-op and community service volunteer students and encouraged him to act as a mentor while exerting authority over them.

“Employers are automatically responsible for criminal acts in the workplace if the power and prestige they give to an employee allow criminal acts to happen,” Talach said.

The lawsuit says the town failed to properly screen Kissner prior to his hiring and failed to provide training with regard to professional boundaries and workplace sexual harassment. Talach said if a judge rules in favour of his client, each party will be financially responsible to cover the total sum of the award.

“You can go after one for it, you can go after the other for all of it or you can go after both until it’s satisfied as a whole.”

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