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Court Upholds Award Against Mother

July 23, 1998

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ The state Supreme Court has upheld a $7.8 million verdict won by an unwed father whose child was put up for adoption without his consent.

The damage award against the child’s mother, her lawyer and her relatives was the first of its kind in the country, said defense attorney Lonnie Simmons.

``We do not intend to haphazardly intrude upon a biological mother’s right to conduct her pregnancy in the manner in which she, herself, chooses,″ the court ruled Wednesday.

``Nevertheless, we recognize with equal importance the right of a biological father who has `grasped the opportunity’ to establish a relationship with his child, and the corresponding, albeit limited, right of a child to associate with his-her biological father.″

Anne Conaty Selvaggi of Huntington and Dr. John Kessel, now of Hickory, N.C., dated for several years and broke up shortly before she found out she was pregnant. They tried to reconcile and briefly were engaged, but she ended the relationship.

Selvaggi gave birth in California, where her lawyer was located, in July 1991.

Kessel, meanwhile, had obtained a temporary restraining order from a West Virginia court that barred an adoption until he could establish paternity.

The jury found that Selvaggi and her attorney knew about the court order and placed the boy for adoption anyway, although Selvaggi said she was not notified of the order until the adoption was complete.

Selvaggi turned her infant son over to a couple in Calgary, Alberta. Kessel did not appeal a Canadian court ruling that the adoption there was final.

A Cabell County jury in December 1995 ordered adoption lawyer David Keene Leavitt, of Beverly Hills, Calif.; Selvaggi; her parents; and brother to pay $1.97 million in compensatory damages plus more than $5 million in punitive damages to Kessel.

The lawyer and Selvaggi’s parents and brother were held liable for interfering with Kessel’s parental rights and for fraudulently concealing the location of the child. Salvaggi was held liable only for fraudulent concealment.

Simmons, the defense lawyer, said an appeal is likely.

``I did the right thing for my baby,″ Selvaggi said. ``He wanted me to have an abortion. I chose to spare that baby’s life, to give it life, give it a home, two parents that love the baby.″

Kessel has said he discussed abortion and other options, including adoption and marriage, with Selvaggi and did not pressure her to have an abortion.

Kessel has not seen the baby and Selvaggi has not seen him since he was born.

``I think that’s best. If he ever wants to meet me, that’s different. He’s part of that family now,″ Selvaggi said.

There was no listing for Kessel in Hickory and he did not return a message left with his lawyer.

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