Legislation prompted by ‘U’ doctor accused of abuse looks to alter statute of limitations, allow survivors to sue

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 10:05am

Former University of Michigan student-athletes hold a press conference with lawmakers in Lansing on Wednesday.

Former University of Michigan student-athletes hold a press conference with lawmakers in Lansing on Wednesday. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Several former University of Michigan student-athletes joined lawmakers in Lansing, Mich. to announce legislation to extend the statute of limitations on certain sexual abuse cases and reform governmental immunity. Standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, the survivors of alleged abuse by late University doctor Robert Anderson called for systemic change to hold predators accountable.

The “Empowering Survivors” legislative reform package is co-sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, and state Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit.

Berman described the legislation as a necessary step to empower survivors of sexual abuse and assault. If passed, the two bills would reform Michigan’s statute of limitations to create a one-year window from the time the laws are passed for survivors of criminal sexual assault to sue if their abuse happened under the guise of medical care or if the abuser was in a position of authority such as a medical doctor. The package would also alter the state’s governmental immunity law to prevent universities from mischaracterizing sexual assault to avoid lawsuits.

This type of behavior must be stopped, as should the legal tactics used to protect these institutions from lawsuits when abuse occurs,” Berman said. “Our purpose today is simple: Survivors must be allowed to pursue justice as they see fit. It’s my privilege as a legislator and citizen to have the opportunity to help these people who are sent to college as teenagers, our best and our brightest, only to be abused and ignored. Well, I say, no more.”

The allegations against Anderson span decades. In February 2018, former University student-athlete Tad DeLuca, who participated in the announcement Wednesday morning, accused Anderson of sexual misconduct at a press conference in Southfield, Mich. Other former student-athletes later came forward with their own stories of abuse.

The University has since set up a hotline number for survivors and sent letters to thousands of former student-athletes about the alleged sexual misconduct. That effort has expanded to include the more than 300,000 former students who were on campus during Anderson’s tenure from the middle of the 1960s to the early 2000s. A judge ordered the University in August to inform those students of litigation involving Anderson.

Jon Vaughn, who played running back for Michigan in 1989 and 1990 before spending four years in the NFL, said as a student he trusted the University would give him the best care. Instead, he said he was frequently abused during medical appointments. 

At the press conference, Vaughn said he now has trouble going to the doctor or placing trust in doctors after what happened with Anderson. He called on the Michigan state legislature to pass the bills to help protect other survivors.

It has also become very clear that the University of Michigan knew,” Vaughn said. “They made a choice not to protect us. Instead, the University enabled our abuser.”

DeLuca, a former wrestler, described the difficulty he has had dealing with the alleged abuse he endured as a student in the 1970s. He added that his coaches knew because he wrote them a letter in 1975 telling them about his experiences with Anderson.

DeLuca said serial predators and the people who enable them should not be allowed to “run out the clock” on the statute of limitations to avoid prosecution.

“Serial sexual molesters and their accomplices should be subject to perpetual overtime,” DeLuca said. “Why should an institution like the University of Michigan be allowed to hide the conduct long enough so they can hide behind the law and never have to answer for the abuse they allowed for all these years? It makes no sense and it must be changed. The University of Michigan failed to be the Leaders and the Best.”

Dr. John Lott, who played football from 1979 to 1983 and is now a licensed clinical social worker, also spoke. Lott said he had to endure exams from Anderson every year, which took a toll mentally.

Recent testimony revealed a former University of Michigan vice president overturned a decision to fire Anderson in 1979. In a court deposition, Thomas Easthope, former vice president of the Division of Student Life, accused former Athletic Director Don Canham of ignoring allegations against Anderson and allowing the doctor to assume an influential role in the University Athletic Department. The school is facing various lawsuits over Anderson’s alleged abuse.

Outside law firm WilmerHale is conducting an external investigation into the allegations against Anderson on behalf of the University. 

Whitsett is Berman’s partner on the package. She said she struggled with the trauma of sexual violence.

“It takes years for a victim traumatized by sexual assault to address this before they come forward to report the crime if they ever do,” Whitsett said. “Fear of negative impact on career, reputation, their interpersonal relationships — they factor against reporting the assault.”

Berman said in the aftermath of the fallout surrounding former Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar’s decades of abuse, he hoped he would never see a similar case.

“Most of us probably hoped that it would never happen again, we’d never encounter another crisis like that,” Berman said. “It seemed impossible, but here we are again, this time at the University of Michigan.”

Managing News Editor Leah Graham can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu. Daily Sports Writer Aria Gerson can be reached at amgerson@umich.edu

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