David O’Connor was a volunteer wrestling coach at Curtis Junior High and Curtis High School from 2003 to 2010. In 2020, former students came forward with allegations that O’Connor had sexually abused them during their time in the University Place School District. The allegations prompted a thorough investigation and legal proceedings against the accused coach. The students then contacted attorneys at law firms Washington Law Center and Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala to file a civil suit against the school district. Since then, the firms have represented multiple students in claims against the school district, most recently reaching a $4.2 million settlement in August 2022.
The plaintiffs in this case allege that O’Connor engaged in a pattern of grooming, isolation, and sexual abuse during from 2003 to 2007, when they were 14 to 16 years old. They say the school district was negligent in their hiring, supervision, and oversight of O’Connor, leading to abuse that had a profound and lasting impact on their lives. The plaintiffs allege that O’Connor was known for inappropriate behavior with students, and the school failed to act on this information. In addition, the University Place School District failed to find out that O’Connor had pled guilty to sexual abuse of five children in Washington State in 1977.
This case was settled shortly before a four-week trial was scheduled to begin in March 2023.
The size of the settlement is a recognition of the trauma and suffering endured by survivors of sexual abuse, and the responsibility of institutions to safeguard their students. It serves as a reminder that school districts must prioritize the safety and well-being of their students and take proactive measures to prevent and address incidents of sexual abuse.
The University Place School District sex abuse settlement also recognizes the in-depth investigation and preparation during this extensive legal battle. Both parties conducted significant pre-trial discovery including depositions of the parties, witnesses, and experts. The plaintiff’s attorneys say they were prepared to bring many witnesses to testify that the volunteer wrestling coach was known to be “touchy feely” with the students.
The $9.5 million settlement can support the survivor’s ongoing recovery, providing access to therapy, medical care, and other resources. It also sets an example for other survivors, encouraging them to speak out against abuse and seek justice.
Lessons for Attorneys and Educational Institutions
The liability of institutions for sexual abuse by employees is an area of growing litigation. Changing social values and the #MeToo movement have empowered survivors to speak out about sexual abuse. Litigation related to the cover-up of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church and other major institutions have uncovered how prevalent abuse is. In the case of volunteer wrestling coach O’Connor, one law firm is also representing survivors of assault committed by O’Connor in his position as a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
This University Place School District settlement serves as a crucial reminder for educational institutions to prioritize student safety. Attorneys for these institutions serve an important function in helping schools and implement robust policies and procedures to prevent abuse. It is essential for schools to thoroughly vet and supervise all staff members, including volunteers, with thorough background checks and vigilant monitoring. Schools must also have effective policies to promptly address any reports or suspicions of misconduct. By doing so, schools can create an environment that fosters trust and protects the well-being of students.
If these procedures fail to prevent abuse, litigation may ensue which is costly, emotionally and financially, for all parties. Attorneys specializing in sexual abuse litigation should ensure they have the resources and tools for lengthy investigation and discovery pre-trial, including consulting with appropriate experts who may provide information or testimony. Forensic psychologists and other medical experts may testify to the impact of the trauma of sexual abuse and the cost of ongoing medical recovery. Psychologists can also testify to the power dynamics at play between students and teachers, coaches, and other adults. Experts in higher education administration may testify to the hiring, supervising, reporting, and investigational procedures institutions should follow to avoid putting abusers in positions where they have access to children.
This settlement marks another landmark in the development of civil litigation related to child sexual abuse. In response to advocacy by survivors advocacy groups, many states have passed legislation extending the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases, or creating lookback periods. These developments recognize that children may not be able to report their abuse, or recognize that they are being harmed, until they are older. Washington state law allows victims to make criminal or civil complaints up to three years after they discover the abuse or that the abuse caused a traumatic reaction. This lookback period was crucial in allowing University Place students to file suit against the school district over a decade after the abuse occurred, and leaves the door open for other students of O’Connor’s to come forward.
Attorneys specializing in cases of sexual abuse and misconduct can learn from the litigation strategies employed in this case when advocating for survivors and seeking fair compensation. Attorneys for schools and other organizations can also use lessons from this case to help their institutional clients implement policies to prevent harm and protect themselves from litigation.