Jury Awards $25 Million Verdict to Sexual Abuse Survivor

In December 2023, following a three-week trial, a jury awarded $25 million in a lawsuit against the Santa Barbara Unified School District. John Doe 2, now in his twenties, is one of three former students who have sued the school district over claims that Dos Pueblos High School failed to prevent a pattern of sexual harassment and abuse by football coach and security guard Justin Sell. The jury found that the school district was 80% responsible for the sexual abuse committed by Sell.

High school security guard outside of building

BySeth Mills, J.D.


Published on January 26, 2024

High school security guard outside of building


Justin Sell began working at Dos Pueblos High School as an assistant football coach and part-time security guard around 2007. There were early warning signs, including complaints from parents about the time Sell was spending with their sons. The football coach also made several official complaints to school administrators that Sell was eating lunch with freshman boys instead of working and continued to spend time with specific students - including one of the John Does who would later file lawsuits against the school district. In 2008 Sell punched a student in the face - an incident where law enforcement was called. Nonetheless, he was promoted to full-time security guard. In 2010, the football coach ended his contract as an assistant coach due to his misconduct, but he remained on campus with full access to and power over students.

In 2010, the parents of John Doe 1 also made an official complaint to the school, which administrators did not escalate to law enforcement, in violation of their legal obligation to do so.

In 2011 the school district transferred Sell to another high school, and a few months later entered into a confidential agreement that allowed Sell to resign instead of being fired.

Sell’s misconduct became public in 2013 when he was arrested on felony stalking and sexual assault charges after two teenage students filed police reports. Following the arrest Sell pled no contest to sexual abuse, served one year in prison, five years of felony probation, and is registered for life with the sex offender registry.

Escalating Abuse

John Doe 2 presented evidence at trial of a pattern of grooming, stalking, sexual abuse, and threats of blackmail. Sell gave the teenager gifts and snacks at first, then escalated to massages when the child was injured wrestling, including touching him inappropriately in front of other students. Sell eventually got the student off campus and sexually assaulted him.

Attorneys for the John Does, Natalie Weatherford and John Taylor of Taylor Ring law firm, demonstrated numerous instances where Dos Pueblos High School was made aware of or should have been aware of, Sell’s violence and sexual misconduct against students in general, and John Doe 2 specifically.

Ongoing Litigation

All three John Does filed lawsuits against the school district in 2021. In October 2023, the Court denied a motion brought by the plaintiffs to consolidate the three cases for trial pertaining to Sell’s misconduct under California Code of Civil Procedure § 1048(a). The plaintiffs argued that so much of the evidence in the cases was the same, including testimony by the same experts, that it would take unnecessary resources to try each case separately. The District argued that consolidating the trials would confuse the issues of liability related to the school district. The Court accepted the District’s argument, holding that although the patterns of abuse were similar, the specific acts of abuse in each case merited separate consideration at trial.

The jury award of $25 million in John Doe 2’s lawsuit followed a three-week trial ending on December 8, 2023. The lawsuits filed by John Does 1 and 3 are ongoing.

The law firm representing the John Does, Taylor Ring, focuses on representing children and adults in sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and misconduct claims. Harry Harrison and Adrian Gargas of Tyson Mendes represented the Santa Barbara Unified School District through their insurance carrier.


Although this is the largest jury verdict against the Santa Barbara Unified School District, many other claims have been made against the school, which attorneys say demonstrates a pattern of negligence by administrators in the school district. As states continue to recognize the long-lasting harm caused by child sexual abuse, these lawsuits will continue to be brought against institutions that ignored abuses in decades past. Attorneys working with school districts can use lessons in these cases to help schools avoid past mistakes and protect students in the future.

About the author

Seth Mills, J.D.

Seth Mills, J.D.

Seth Mills, J.D., a career counselor at New York Law School, has a substantial background in legal education and public interest initiatives. Currently serving as the Director of Public Interest & Pro Bono Initiatives and an Adjunct Professor for the Law Office Externship Seminar at New York Law School, Seth focuses on guiding law students in their professional development and legal externship experiences.

Prior to these roles, Seth was a Legal Content Writer for the Expert Institute, contributing to the development and curation of legal content. At Lawline.com, Seth held multiple positions, including Senior Program Attorney and Managing Blog Editor, where he was responsible for creating legal educational materials and managing legal publications.

Seth's legal career began as an Associate Attorney at Sterling Analytics Group, providing a foundation in practical legal work. Additionally, Seth volunteered as a Policy Advocate with the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), demonstrating a commitment to public interest law.

In terms of education, Seth earned a J.D. cum laude from New York Law School, where they were involved in NYLS OUTlaws and the Criminal Law Society. Seth also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from Bard College at Simon's Rock. Their educational and professional experiences reflect a deep commitment to legal education, public interest law, and the mentoring of future legal professionals.

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