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The Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday said a polygamous sect's charitable trust can be held liable for Warren Jeffs' role in forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry.
The ruling sends the case back to a lower court where the former child bride, Elissa Wall, may seek up to $40 million.
"As trustee ... Jeffs was called upon to administer the trust in accordance with the doctrines and principles of the FLDS church. Those doctrines and principles, according to [Wall's] allegations and evidence in the record, included the arrangement of plural, underage marriages," Wednesday's ruling states. "Thus, as abhorrent and troubling as this may appear to be, there is a basis in the record for the conclusion that Jeffs' acts were aimed in part at advancing the interests of the trust as he perceived them."
Jeffs, the imprisoned president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was in 2001 head of the United Effort Plan (UEP), the charitable trust that still holds much of the property in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. collectively known as Short Creek.
Wall's attorneys have argued that Jeffs was acting in his capacity as trustee of the UEP when he forced her to marry her 19-year-old cousin that year, so the trust is liable for Jeffs' alleged role in orchestrating Wall's marriage. Wall and her ex-husband Allen Steed were forced to follow Jeffs' instructions to marry if they hoped to remain on UEP property, eat food grown or purchased by the UEP and use other trust resources, they claimed.
Attorneys for the UEP countered that ordering a marriage to an underage girl is so far outside the bounds of Jeffs' duties as trustee that the trust cannot be liable. They asked the court to throw out the case.
The court said the trust may be connected enough to Wall's marriage and subsequent sexual abuse to be liable for damages.
"Given Jeffs's unique role as leader of the FLDS church, and in light of the unusual, troubling function of plural marriage involving young brides in the FLDS culture, we hold that a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Jeffs was acting within the scope of his role as a trustee in directing Steed to engage in sexual activity with [Wall]," the ruling states.
The case goes back to 3rd District Court in Salt Lake County, where Wall still must prove the trust's liability and the damages it should pay.
The UEP has about $110 million in assets. If Wall were to prevail at a trial and receive an award of seven figures or greater, the trust would likely pay her in Hildale and Colorado City houses and property rather than cash.
In 2007, a St. George jury convicted Jeffs of rape as an accomplice for his role in Wall's marriage. The Utah Supreme Court later overturned that conviction.
In 2011, a Texas jury convicted Jeffs, now 59, of sex assault charges related to his taking underage girls as brides. He is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years.