Lawsuit over autistic child tears Sunnyvale neighborhood apart

SUNNYVALE, Calif. (KTVU) -- A controversial lawsuit where two families are suing a third over the actions of their autistic child has rocked a Sunnyvale neighborhood.

As legal bills mount on both sides, a local autism group is trying to raise awareness about the case. Their message is not that there wasn't a problem, but that there should be a better way to resolve it.

Neighbors will tell you Arlington Court in Sunnyvale has been anything but quiet in recent years. At the center of it all is one house, and the couple that used to live there with their autistic son.

Two other families here are suing them, calling their child a public nuisance.

"Well at first I thought it was a joke. I thought nobody would possibly sue a small child for being a public nuisance," said Jill Escher of the Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area.

It is no joke.

The lawsuit cites a pattern of behavior from when the child was between 3 and 9 years old. That behavior included hitting other children, throwing things and wandering into neighbors' garages.

It alleges the parents failed to prevent harm to others. Jill Escher is in shock over the legal action.

"This could be us. This could happen to any family with an autistic child," said Escher.

The family at the heart of the suit has moved. Speaking to KTVU by phone, they say this lawsuit has taken a heavy toll on them and that they're doing the best they can within the legal system.

They say their focus in on their son and that they hope this case builds awareness of disability issues.

Legal experts say what happens next may have a wide-reaching impact.

"The fact that this case has made it this far and this much in legal fees have been expended in all likelihood, I think sets a dangerous precedent," said attorney Steven Clark. "When you look at a case like this you have to not only say is there a legal basis, but should we be doing this on moral basis?"

Meanwhile, on Arlington Court, neighbors say the lawsuit has been hard on everyone.

"It's a difficult thing but the bottom line is everyone needs to be safe," said neighbor Tracy May.

The lawsuit alleges the autistic child was not only a public nuisance, but had a negative impact on property values.

The Autism Society is trying to make other families aware of what's going on, in hopes they'll show their outrage at the courthouse, not with signs or protests, but with their presence.

Escher says the next hearing involves access to medical and school records for the child.

"This could have been any one of thousands of autistic children in our community. And all those parents have the right to know what's at stake for them," said Escher.

And even though the defendant and half the plaintiffs no longer live here, the legal proceedings continue.

The next hearing is set for Tuesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court.