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Wife avoids liability in molestation suit

The wife of a music teacher who took his own life after being charged with sexually abusing underage students has been dismissed from a lawsuit filed by a former music student.

Contending he was sexually assaulted by the teacher, the former student sued the teacher’s estate, his corporation and his widow. Even though the teacher’s wife allegedly observed “grooming” behavior directed towards music students, Fairfax Circuit Judge Penney S. Azcarate concluded the allegations failed to give rise to a duty under negligence theories. The judge dismissed the widow from the case.

Azcarate’s Nov. 9 ruling is Doe v. Virginia Music Adventures Inc. (VLW 020-8-130).

Allegations spanned 30 years

A longtime music instructor in the Washington area, Jeffrey Cummins was first charged in April 2019. Fairfax County Police said two former students had reported abuse, triggering a year-long investigation. The 56-year-old Cummins had been a private music teacher who gave lessons at his home in Annandale, police said. He also led a traveling children’s music group and taught at three Washington-area schools.

In June, police brought additional charges based on accusations from four additional alleged victims. Police said the former students reported abuse over a 30-year period, from 1987 to 2017.

Police made arrangements with Cummins’ lawyer for him to turn himself in, but he failed to show at the scheduled time, a news release said. His body was later found near Warsaw, police said.

The anonymous plaintiff who sued in February contends he was groomed and then sexually assaulted over a period of seven years during private music lessons and visits to perform yard work at the Cummins home.

Alleged failure to warn or protect

Cummins was married to Janet Cummins while the alleged molestation took place, according to Azcarate’s opinion. Although Janet Cummins was not accused of any abuse herself, the amended complaint alleged she knew enough to be aware of her husband’s criminal actions.

Janet allegedly saw her husband touch the plaintiff’s bare chest during a lesson, saw him serve alcohol to adolescent boys during sleepovers and saw boys’ underwear in the laundry room. The complaint said she either knew of a prior instance of inappropriate contact or was at least aware of a complaint of such misconduct.

The plaintiff contended Janet was negligent in failing to warn or protect him in her role as a yard work employer, business owner and custodial supervisor. Janet, represented by Dawn E. Boyce of Fairfax, filed a demurrer.

Special role alleged

Without any claim that Janet Cummins ever expressly undertook to warn or protect the plaintiff, Azcarate looked to whether a duty arose from some special relationship or custodial supervision.

Although both Mr. and Mrs. Cummins hired and paid the plaintiff for mowing the lawn, the alleged molestation happened “outside the purview of lawn mowing” and was not within the scope of employment, the judge reasoned.

A claim that Janet Cummins was a part owner of her husband’s music teaching business also failed in the absence of an allegation of specific knowledge of her husband’s illicit activity.

“For there to be a duty under third party negligence, the level of foreseeability must be clear and unequivocal with no room for uncertainty,” Azcarate wrote. “One could speculate as to hunches and deniability but that is not the purview of the Court. The allegations in the Amended Complaint, even when taken as true, do not demonstrate that the observations and knowledge Mrs. Cummins allegedly possessed indicated there was an imminent probability of injury,” the judge continued.

No foreseeability

The same foreseeability test afflicted a claim based on custodial supervision, Azcarate said.

“There are no allegations Mrs. Cummins knew criminal conduct had occurred or was about to occur. Knowing of a prior allegation of sexual assault is not enough to survive demurrer,” the judge wrote.

“Furthermore, the alleged facts of grooming observations and knowledge in the case at bar is not enough to give rise to reasonable foreseeability for the assaultive behavior of a third party,” Azcarate concluded. She dismissed a separate punitive damages claim, as well.

The case continues against Jeffrey Cummins’ company and his estate. The plaintiff is represented by Jeffrey J. Hines of Baltimore. The estate is represented by John Hartel of Hanover, Maryland. The company – Virginia Music Adventures Inc. – is represented by Phillip V. Anderson of Roanoke.