Student-athletes have a number of legal options if they have been sexually abused while participating in team sports. When it comes to pressing criminal charges, the actual perpetrator is often the only person held responsible for the crime. If a California District Attorney chooses to pursue the case, it is tried in federal court as The State of California vs. The Defendant. If found guilty, the accused faces prison time, probation, fines, and inclusion on the state’s sex offender registry. While this may be a step in the right direction for holding sexual abusers accountable, it is not the only avenue for seeking justice when a student-athlete has been sexually abused.
In many instances of sexual abuse involving student-athletes, it is found that the abuse could’ve been avoided if those tasked with the protection of youth had not been negligent. Through civil litigation, an attorney explores the legal obligations of all parties involved such as “vicarious liability” and “duty of care.” An experienced attorney looks at systemic failures of trusted individuals and institutions who failed to protect young athletes from harm. Civil Plaintiffs have the opportunity to not only hold all parties accountable for their actions (or inaction), but also to recover financial compensation for physical injuries, mental and emotional trauma, and loss of educational opportunity.
Who to Sue When a Student-Athlete Has Been Sexually Abused
In sexual abuse cases involving serial-abuse within organizations, the perpetrators are often not solely relied upon to pay for damages. Attorneys typically seek to name institutions that aid and abet child molesters as defendants as well. The most recent legislation clarifies the standard of care for all youth sports organizations. According to the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017, all adults authorized to interact with an amateur athlete must report immediately any allegation of child abuse of an amateur athlete who is a minor. Anyone who fails to do so is subject to penalty in criminal court and can be held liable in civil court; this includes the perpetrator, the school district, school administrators, and the athletic organization if not affiliated with the school district.
Suing the Perpetrator
Laws prohibit adults in positions of trust and authority from sexual harassment and abuse of young athletes in their care. The spectrum of behavior you may litigate as sexual abuse covers everything from sexual jokes, discussions of a sexual nature, and innuendo, to voyeurism, exhibitionism, and sharing pornographic material, to physical assault. When a coach is accused of sexual abuse or turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, the court will determine the coach’s legal duty to the Plaintiff and what professional standards are expected of that position.
A coach’s duties consist of:
- Providing a safe sport environment
- Using total knowledge and skills of instruction and training
- Using safe and appropriate equipment
- Planning for short and long-term training programs
- Properly matching athletes in competitions based on size, skill, and power
- Sufficiently supervising athlete training and competition
- Warning athletes and parents of the risks involved in the sport
- Providing proper medical care, as necessary
- Taking steps to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination by other athletes or staff
- Reporting suspected or known child abuse to the proper authorities
A coach can be held liable for failing to perform these duties, especially when a student-athlete has been sexually abused, as a result.
Suing the School District
Title IX is a federal law that serves as the grounds for suing school districts for athlete sexual abuse. The premise of Title IX is that all students should receive equal opportunity access to education, free from gender-based discrimination. The courts have interpreted this to mean that students have a right to an environment that is “free from sexual abuse and violence.”
For example, a 2007 federal appeals court decision against the University of Colorado-Boulder ruled that the university had condoned a policy that allowed players to show new recruits “a good time,” which involved sexual assaults. “The likelihood of such misconduct was so obvious that CU’s failure was the result of deliberate indifference,” the court stated in their decision. Though the university refused to admit liability, they wound up settling with two plaintiffs for $2.85 million after the ruling. This particular case was significant in paving the way for university administration, athletic departments, and coaches to report known offenses to the authorities and take corrective actions against perpetrators.
A school district is liable for violating Title IX if it fails to take reasonable action against known student-on-student sexual harassment that the employees knew about or if it failed to take investigative and disciplinary action against an employee claimed to have been committing sexual abuse.
In the landmark 1998 case Gebser vs. Lago Vista Independent School District, the courts ruled that schools can be deemed liable for sexual abuse when “an employee who has been invested by the school board with supervisory power over the offending employee actually knew of the abuse, had the power to end the abuse, and failed to do so.”
Schools are generally expected to put in place:
- A statement openly renouncing sexual abuse
- Rules and remedies should a complaint arise
- A clear policy regarding sanctions for sexual abusers
- Training for all staff members on sexual abuse red flags and behaviors
- Monitoring and enforcement measures put into place for all school policies
- Information for students that helps them understand what to do if they are abused
Failure to abide by these principles is grounds for penalty.
Suing School Administrators
It is not uncommon to see individual principals, assistant principals, and school administrators called out in Title IX lawsuits. After all, the legal standard for school administrators is outlined in Title IX for immediate action to be taken to eliminate sexual abuse, address its effects, and prevent recurrence. Yet, there are many gray areas within the scope of this legislation pertaining to what is considered “immediate,” as well as what may be considered “reasonable” actions and preventive measures.
Attorneys often call upon education administration and supervision expert witnesses to help answer the question: What would a reasonable person with a similar background, training, education, and work environment have done in that situation? Failure to meet a commonly perceived educational standard constitutes as “negligence,” entitling the Plaintiff to damages. By law, every school district must appoint a Title IX coordinator. If a school district has not, they have not met the legal standard of care.
Suing the Athletic Organization
The February 2018 signing of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 came after several high-profile sexual abuse cases involving youth sports organizations, including gymnastics and swim. In one incident, a former USA Gymnast filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics after she found out her coach had been secretly videotaping her undressing. Investigators found that USA Gymnastics had an internal policy of failing to forward allegations of child sex abuse unless statements were written and signed by both parent and child. They had received at least four warnings about the coach years earlier, including one strongly worded opinion that the coach “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.” Due to the organization’s lack of action, the coach went on to sexually abuse more gymnasts. Currently, USA Gymnastics faces fire from the more than 250 gymnasts who say they were sexually abused by another one of the organization’s administrators involved with athletics at Michigan State University.
The grounds for suing an athletic organization for sexual abuse are based on assertions that:
- Officials knew or should have known about the sexual abuse
- The Defendants should have taken reasonable steps to prevent harm
- The perpetrator was bestowed a formal and a position of trust, which was abused
- The perpetrator acted as an employee and/or agent of the organization
- The abuse occurred at the organization’s official training facility, where they supervised
How Much Time Do I Have to File a Civil Lawsuit for Sexual Abuse?
With ever-changing state legislation, your deadline for filing a civil lawsuit depends upon when the abuse occurred, among other things. According to Section 340.1 of the Civil Code, “In an action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse, the time for commencement of the action shall be within eight years of the date the Plaintiff attains the age of majority [age 18] or within three years of the date the Plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by the sexual abuse, whichever period expires later.”
While there are important exceptions, this generally means that student-athletes who were sexually abused can file a civil lawsuit stemming from the abuse on or before they turn 26, or within three years of discovering the ramifications of the abuse, whichever is later.
Let an Experienced Attorney Fight For You
Figuring out who to take on in a lawsuit can be a daunting task, but you don’t have to go at it alone. Experienced counsel awaits at Lewis & Llewellyn. A confidential consultation puts you under no obligation to file a lawsuit and costs you nothing. Instead, it helps you explore your full set of legal options. We’re not afraid to defend and protect you against entrenched interests. We’ve taken on school districts and organizations—and won.
Athletes entrust coaches and sports organizations with their safety. When this trust is violated, the ramifications can have devastating effects for the abused that last a lifetime.
The attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn are compelled to devote our professional expertise and resources to ending the epidemic of abuse. We seek to effect 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.
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