USC Sexual Assault Bill Threatens to Deny Victims Justice

The University of Southern California (USC) sexual assault scandal is back in the limelight thanks to a new bill introduced by California Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes (AB 1510) that gives victims a 12-month window to revive cases that are barred by the state’s statute of limitations. While the bill appears to offer victims a new chance to pursue justice, in reality, it jeopardizes their privacy and the financial compensation that is guaranteed by a recently offered class-action settlement.

In 2017, USC fired its gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall for complaints about inappropriate comments and conduct toward his patients. Since then, about 500 students have filed sexual assault lawsuits against Tyndall and the university.

This year, USC offered a $215 million class-action settlement for any Tyndall patient who chooses to participate. The settlement amounts to up to $250,000 per patient and requires the university to make several changes to the ways it handles sexual misconduct prevention and response.

The catch is that participating in the class-action lawsuit settlement would prevent women from filing lawsuits of their own in state court, which means many have an important decision to make — hope to earn justice and a better payout through an individual lawsuit or accept the justice and payment the USC settlement offers.

Reyes’ legislation makes this decision even more difficult. If passed, the bill would give Tyndall’s patients an extra year to decide whether to opt-out of the class-action lawsuit and file a lawsuit of their own. Such an extension combined with attorneys’ promises and the immense media pressure surrounding the USC case will incentivize patients to forego the class-action settlement. But in so doing, victims would gamble away their chances at justice, payment and privacy.

Unlike most sexual assault settlements, USC’s class-action settlement guarantees payment to all possible victims. Every patient of Dr. Tyndall’s — even those who have not yet alleged assault — will receive at least $2,500 unless they choose to opt out. Those willing to submit a written statement and conduct a private interview with a court-approved third-party specialist will receive up to $250,000. Although not as large as payouts in the Michigan State University assault case surrounding former sports doctor Larry Nassar, these payments are as large or larger than what many sexual assault victims receive.

“It is my considered judgement,” said sexual assault mediator and retired judge Layne Phillips in a sworn declaration, “that plaintiffs would be unlikely to have obtained more money and benefits without going through years of discovery and trial, where they would face substantial risks of a less favorable outcome.”

Even in famous sexual abuse cases, women often receive less than the settlement USC offers. In the Harvey Weinstein cases, for example, most women settled for between $80,000 and $150,000.

“Whenever you litigate, there’s a risk,” said Annika Martin, one of the attorneys leading the class-action settlement in the Tyndall case, “And, sure, you could have come up with a verdict of more than $250,000, but you could have come up with a jury verdict of zero.”

Acting on Reyes’ legislation also forces victims to undertake the painful and public process of proving to an unpredictable jury that Tyndall assaulted them — in many cases relying on evidence that is decades old, with witnesses that are missing, and with testimony marred by age and forgetfulness.

“I have grown weary of plaintiff’s lawyers and images of ambulance chasers who prey on victims with the hopes of big payouts,” wrote women’s advocate and attorney Cherylyn Lebon in the Los Angeles Daily News. “In the process, survivors are lost in the shuffle and are re-victimized again.”

Lebon noted that the USC settlement avoids the challenges individual lawsuits would raise, affording victims the payment and privacy they deserve.

Elisabeth Treadway, a victim of Tyndall’s from 1999 agrees in USA Today:

“The settlement holds USC accountable for their failure to protect female students under their care and supervision. The process for receiving compensation is straightforward and gives victims the choice on how much of their story they want to share. While I am ready to speak publicly about my experience, I understand many women are not. Importantly, this settlement acknowledges all of us.”

Lawmakers should not fall for the claim that this legislation will bring women justice — for many, it will jeopardize the justice they’ve already won. Instead, lawmakers should listen to women’s advocates, attorneys, and victims themselves and allow women to make their own decisions about whether to accept the USC settlement as it stands, without adding new caveats, exceptions, or confusions to the law.

Kristiana Bolzman is a contributor for Young Voices and writes on education policy issues for a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Follow her on Twitter @KristianaBolzmn.