Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports: Can Organizations Be Held Responsible?

By January 3, 2019 July 19th, 2019 Blog
sexual abuse in youth sports

Sexual abuse in youth sports is allowed to persist in society when there are entities turning a blind eye to, or explicitly condoning, the abuse. In California, the failure to report known or suspected child abuse and take preventative action is a crime. Civil litigation allows sexual abuse survivors and their families the opportunity to stop the cycle of abuse by holding third parties accountable for their actions or inactions.

Sports organizations, schools, administrators, and coaching staff can be legally punished for their role in sexual abuse cases. Though, an ethical, moral grounds for responsibility is not the same as a criminal or civil basis to sue in court. When it comes to pursuing civil litigation against sexual abuse in youth sports, working with an experienced attorney can make sure all aiding parties are held responsible.  

Can Sports Organizations Be Responsible for Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports?

By definition, responsibility is “the state or fact of being answerable or accountable for something within one’s power, control, or management.” There is an implication that a child is entrusted into the care of a youth sports organization after school. However, the ability to concretely say that the organization at large is legally “at fault” for a sexual predator’s behavior depends upon the type of case you’re building.

The Ethical Case: There are many shades of gray when it comes to sports organizations’ responsibilities to athletes. From a parental standpoint, there is an enormous amount of trust poured into the organization’s leadership to act in loco parentis, which means standing in for parents to maintain a safe environment for children. From an ethical view, it is perfectly reasonable to hold organizations to task for screening and hiring coaches without criminal records, for addressing issues that come to their attention, and for ensuring there is no sexual discrimination happening on their watch. Of course, ethical considerations are different from legal considerations, and legal considerations are different from civil liability.

The Criminal Case: Criminal courts focus on the law. Adult sexual contact with minors under 18 is strictly prohibited in California according to California Penal Code 261.5. For college-level athletes in California, there must be an affirmative consent. Given these legal standards, individual abusers can be charged with sexual crimes against student-athletes by the state District Attorney in criminal court. Only in rare exceptions can sports organization administrators be taken to criminal court. There must be evidence that administrators were directly involved.

The Civil Case: Most cases where there is reason to believe the athletic organization failed to create a safe environment for children are fought in civil court. From a civil liability standpoint, the sports organization owes a duty of care to the athlete. If the organization fails to meet these duties and the circumstances and their willful conduct or negligence cause the athlete harm—and the injury was reasonably foreseeable—the entire organization can be held liable in a civil case.

These breaches in a sports organization’s policy, as well as those federally mandated by Title IX—which prohibit sexual discrimination—can be used to build a case. Once a sports organization (and/or school) knows of or should reasonably know of sexual harassment or assault occurring within its sports program, Title IX requires there be a prompt investigation and steps taken to protect student-athletes from further harm.

Most significantly, a strong civil case for liability can also be made when sports organizations fail to abide by the standards outlined in the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017, which requires organizations to “develop training, oversight practices, policies, and procedures… to prevent the abuse,” along with mandatory reporting of all sexual abuse allegations. Organizations are expected to “take reasonable steps to limit one-on-one interactions between minors and adults.” They must offer sexual abuse identification training to all staff members, conduct routine audits to ensure their policies are enforced, and prohibit retaliation. This law also gives athletes the right to sue for up to 10 years from the discovery of harm.  

How Recent Cases of Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports Reset the Standard

The judicial branch of government exercises considerable authority in determining the law of the land. One of the most significant cases in recent history is that of Jane Doe v. United States Youth Soccer Association, decided by the Court of Appeal of California’s Sixth Appellate Division.

In the case, a soccer coach in Northern California sexually abused a 12-year-old athlete for nearly one year. He was convicted in criminal court and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The plaintiff sued the soccer league on the grounds of negligence and willful misconduct in breaching their duty to conduct criminal backgrounds checks and warning of the risk of sexual abuse. Records revealed that the coach had been convicted of spousal abuse.

This ruling changes how sexual abuse in youth sports proceeds through civil court because it:

  • Established there is a “special relationship” between athletes and sports organizations.
    In the past, the court has assigned a special relationship to cases where a vulnerable plaintiff is overseen by an adult caregiver who has a duty to prevent harm. The court rejected the soccer league’s argument that no special relationship existed because the athlete’s participation was voluntary. The ruling clarified that schools and youth sports leagues owe parents a duty to keep children safe in their care.
  • Established that sports organizations are required to conduct criminal background checks.
    While creating and implementing a child safety education program could be considered burdensome, it is not asking too much that a sports organization conduct a criminal background check for all coaches, volunteers, and staff members working with children. In this case, the soccer coach had filled out a questionnaire, asking if he had ever been convicted of a crime—to which he lied. Though the sports organization had no direct knowledge of his criminal past, it was reasonable that they should have known, had they conducted a background check to verify.
  • Established that sports organizations owe a duty to mitigate foreseeable risk to athletes.
    The soccer league had no knowledge that the coach had physically assaulted or sexually abused anyone, but they did have a record of complaints from parents and other coaches who were concerned about behavior they observed—like inappropriate touching and continuing to contact the plaintiff even after he was removed as coach. The organization eventually suspended the coach but breached a duty to inform the plaintiff’s parents.

The USA Gymnastics scandal is another noteworthy situation involving sexual abuse in youth sports. Now that dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the organization’s former team physician, USA Gymnastics has pledged “a complete culture change.” As a result, all members must report suspected sexual misconduct to legal authorities and the US Center for SafeSport. Any adult who has been kicked out of a club will be entered into a database to ensure they don’t continue abuse at other clubs.

Seek Help From an Experienced Civil Attorney

There are several paths you may choose to take in your pursuit of justice against an act of sexual abuse in youth sports. One path might be to file a civil proceeding and another could be to press criminal charges. Thankfully, you don’t have to choose one over the other. You can press criminal charges and file a civil proceeding for the same crime—either separately or simultaneously.

As parents of young children, the civil attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn understand the betrayal parents must feel when they entrust coaches and sports organizations with the safety of their children and that trust is violated. As lawyers, we are compelled to devote our professional expertise and resources to ending the epidemic of senseless abuse. We know the difference between personal responsibility, criminal legality, and civil liability.

While holding individual perpetrators responsible is necessary, we also understand that we must go after sports organizations who aid and abet child predators if we wish to secure a fair settlement and send the message that there is no room for indifference to suffering. We seek to enact real change in the lives of those impacted by abuse, as well as society as a whole, by strategically bringing lawsuits that shine a spotlight on the individuals and entities that condone, cover up, or turn a blind eye to sexual abuse.

Lewis & Llewellyn are passionate and experienced trial attorneys who have represented both adult and child victims of sexual abuse across the nation. Recognized for our track record of multi-million-dollar settlements and awards, our passion lies in holding the worst type of predators accountable for their wrongs and helping survivors in the aftermath of trauma. Contact us or call +1 (415) 800-0590 for a free, confidential, no-obligation case review.

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