Trigger warning: Mentions of sexual assault
On Jan. 4, State Senator Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) announced plans to introduce legislation that would aid victims of former University of Michigan athletic doctor Robert Anderson in pursuing legal action against the University.
These bills would provide Anderson survivors with a 30-day window to sue the University for its role in the abuse outside of the statute of limitations. The legislation would also remove the University’s ability to use the defense of government immunity.
In a Jan. 4 press release, Barrett emphasized Michigan lawmakers’ responsibility to take action against sexual abuse.
“As lawmakers, we have a moral duty to update our laws to protect survivors and provide them with legal recourse against institutions that enable abusers, even when those institutions are agents of the government,” Barrett said. “The university has not denied these tragic events happened, therefore, we are obliged to provide a path forward to justice for the victims.”
White Law PLLC, a law firm located in Okemos, Michigan, represented over 160 victims of former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and currently represents dozens of Anderson survivors. Alexander Rusek, a senior associate attorney with White Law PLLC, said in an interview with The Daily that Barrett’s proposed legislation would provide an opportunity for survivors to pursue legal action decades later.
“(These bills) will give survivors of Dr. Anderson the opportunity to bring their case in the court because many times in Michigan, our statute of limitations limits survivors from bringing lawsuits only because of how long ago the abuse happened,” Rusek said. “The science and research shows us that survivors, in general, of childhood sexual abuse don’t come forward — if they ever do — until approximately age 48 to 52 … (T)hese bills (would) allow survivors to have access to justice going forward … (and) remove the statute of limitations.”
Nassar survivor Grace French founded The Army of Survivors, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the systemic sexual abuse of athletes and protecting victims by creating a system that holds perpetrators accountable. The Army of Survivors works to create and allocate supportive resources for survivors of sexual violence, according to their website. French said Barrett’s legislation would be a great step forward in helping survivors find justice.
“I think the legislation is a win for survivors and it’s really giving access for these survivors to come forward and … get the justice that they deserve,” French said. “This is definitely not the end of what we hope to do in the future for survivors in Michigan, because there’s so many more people that we want to make sure that have access to justice, but it’s a really good step in that direction.”
Julia Schettenhelm, LSA junior and Communications Director for the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, wrote in an email to The Daily that College Democrats approve of the legislator’s efforts to support survivors.
“We stand with the Anderson survivors and continue to support the Hail to the Victims movement,” Schettenhelm wrote. “As such, we agree that offering this kind of support to survivors is the right thing to do.”
In an email to The Daily, Margaret Beste, LSA senior and vice chair of College Republicans at the University of Michigan, said they also support the legislation.
“Legislation that supports survivors of sexual abuse, assualt, and harrassment, especially in navigating the emotional and material challenges of the judicial system, is a wholly worthwhile pursuit,” Beste wrote. “The presently outlined pieces of the proposal, including a 30-day window for survivors to file suit against the University and the removal of procedural obstacles, appear to be sensible and meaningful steps to help survivors obtain justice. We look forward to learning more about the phrasing and implementation of the details outlined in the proposal and how we might help move the legislation forward.”
Rusek weighed in on the importance of this legislation to people with a wide range of backgrounds and political affiliations.
“I think that it’s important that people know that… – no matter what your background or political affiliations – this is legislation that everyone can get behind,” Rusek said. “Bipartisan effort is really powerful and sends a message to the enablers and perpetrators of sexual abuse in the state that we’re not going to stand for it anymore. And (they’re) going to be held accountable for it.”
A similar Empowering Survivors package was introduced to the Michigan House of Representatives – once in September 2020 and again in March 2021 – by State Representatives Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Township) and Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit). This collection of bills has not yet been voted on.
Barrett’s legislation is set to be introduced in the Michigan state Senate in January. The Senate reconvened for its first session of 2022 in Lansing on Jan. 12.
Read The Daily’s full coverage of the Anderson sexual abuse case here.
Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at email@example.com.