Woman suing Utah ranch for troubled teens hits legal roadblock in court

Hannah Archuleta is pictured at Utah's Turn-About Ranch in this undated photo. A Utah judge on Wednesday dismissed a Colorado woman's allegations of assault and retaliation against the ranch, but the ruling allows her to bring the suit again at a later date.

Hannah Archuleta is pictured at Utah's Turn-About Ranch in this undated photo. A Utah judge on Wednesday dismissed a Colorado woman's allegations of assault and retaliation against the ranch, but the ruling allows her to bring the suit again at a later date. (Gloria Allred)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah judge dealt a setback Wednesday to a woman who says a ranch for troubled teens punished her for disclosing she was sexually assaulted by an employee.

Sixth District Judge Marvin Bagley sided with Turn-About Ranch in concluding that Hannah Archuleta's allegations are medical malpractice claims. Utah law limits how much money a person can be awarded on such claims if successful at trial.

Bagley granted the ranch's motion to dismiss the case based on procedural issues and did so without prejudice, meaning Archuleta can file the suit again at a later date.

No one disputes that she was sent to the ranch for behavioral and substance abuse treatment after an appearance on the TV program "Dr. Phil" when she was 17. But the parties disagree about how closely her allegations of assault and punishment tie in to her treatment there.

Archuleta, who lives in Colorado, has said she was motivated to come forward after Paris Hilton publicly came forward as a victim of abuse at a Provo center for troubled teens. At the urging of Hilton and others, Utah lawmakers passed a measure earlier this year providing greater state oversight of such businesses.

On Wednesday, attorney Olivia Flechsig said the night watchman who allegedly assaulted Archuleta twice in a kitchen wasn't a medical provider. And the reprisal her client faced – including threats of violence, no bathroom access, and working in freezing temperatures — wasn't treatment, Flechsig argued.

She said the assaults were as disconnected from the therapy program as a theft carried out by a doctor who steals a patient's wallet during a checkup.

The suit "does not relate to whether or not Turn-About was rendering proper health care to her," Flechsig said. "It's about a sexual assault — two sexual assaults." Utah's medical malpractice law also "imposes significant damage caps" at trial that aren't fair to impose on her client, Flechsig said.

The law limits the damages a person can collect to about $400,000, an effort by Utah's Legislature to combat soaring medical costs. It also requires Archuleta to first bring her allegations to a prelitigation panel before suing. The committee makes nonbinding decisions meant to help parties evaluate the strength of their cases.

Attorney Terence Rooney, who's representing the ranch, said its services are similar to that of a psychologist or social worker, so it's considered a medical facility under the state law. Archuleta also reported the assaults to medical workers there, Rooney argued. He said she's alleging on a broad level that the ranch didn't provide health services the way it should have.

Rooney argued that part of Archuleta's alleged punishment was "additional reflection time" that included forced walks and labor at the ranch, tying into the therapeutic activities at the ranch.

Bagley agreed it's a medical facility, noting it's licensed to provide mental health services and is required by administrative law to have nurses and a doctor. He said the lawsuit suggests at different points that the allegations of assault and retaliation were tied in a broad way to the health care services the ranch was providing her.

Archuleta has said the man she identified as her aggressor didn't face meaningful discipline and continued to interact with girls one-on-one. She sued for negligent hiring and supervision, assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking damages to be awarded at trial.

The ranch has denied the allegations and said the girl and her father weren't willing to participate in its inquiry into what happened.

Turn-About is facing an earlier lawsuit from the widow of a counselor who was beaten to death by a teenager in 2016.

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