Are USA Gymnastics and MSU Liable for Larry Nassar’s Actions?

The world watched in shock and horror as victim after victim came forward in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom to tell horrific stories of abuse at the hands of former gymnastics coach Larry Nassar.

One huge legal question to be answered in the cases filed against both USA Gymnastics and MSU hinge upon the principle that the institutions knew, or had reason to know, of Nassar’s conduct and should have taken reasonable steps to ensure gymnast safety, yet failed to do so.

Can USA Gymnastics and MSU Be Held Liable?

The victims of Nassar’s crimes contend that both Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics had reason to know of Nassar’s crimes but failed to take action to protect against future assaults. The husbands of many of the victims are suing for loss of consortium, meaning the crimes committed against their wives caused an interruption of normal sexual relations between the spouses.

Michigan State filed a motion to dismiss, seeking immunity and claiming that as a public university and agency of government, it is immune from civil suits. Michigan State also claims they had no obligation under Title IX to report on-campus crimes and even if they did, the victims were not students at the time the attacks occurred and therefore Title IX is not even applicable.

USA Gymnastics also recently filed a motion to dismiss. Unlike Michigan State, they have no claim of immunity. Rather, USA Gymnastics contends that as soon as they heard of the allegations against Nassar, they hired an investigator and reported him to the FBI, leading to his arrest and conviction.

The victims oppose the motions to dismiss, claiming the arguments laid forth by MSU and USA Gymnastics consist of a misrepresentation of the facts. Many of the crimes were committed between 1997 and 2014, when Nassar served not only as a doctor for Michigan state but also as the national medical director for USA Gymnastics — a position that gave him enormous influence over the young gymnasts and their families.

As a privately-run organization, USA Gymnastics cannot claim sovereign immunity the way Michigan State potentially can as a public university and an extension of the government. However, USA Gymnastics can argue that they had no way of controlling Nassar’s actions.

The majority of Nassar’s assaults occurred not at USA Gymnastics events, they argue, but rather on the Michigan State campus where Nassar was employed as a doctor. Other attacks occurred at Twistars, a gymnasium Nassar was affiliated with, or even in Nassar’s own home. By stressing the locations of the crimes, USA Gymnastics seeks to weaken the nexus between Nassar’s crimes and the idea that they had the ability to oversee or control his actions.

USA Gymnastics also asserts that no fiduciary relationship exists between their organization and the student athletes enrolled in the program. Without this fiduciary relationship between USA Gymnastics and the student athletes, many of the claimants fall outside the three-year statute of limitations for bringing a claim. If there is no fiduciary relationship between the parties — such as what normally exists between a doctor and a patient or an attorney and a client — the plaintiffs could not show that fraudulent concealment kept them from bringing a claim earlier.

A case brought forward against a former Catholic priest also provides precedent for denying the plaintiffs the right to bring suit outside of the three-year statute of limitations. In Doe v. Roman Catholic Archbishop for the Archdiocese of Detroit, a former altar boy brought a suit years after his assault after seeing other victims come forward to report former abuse by priests. The court found the plaintiff knew enough at the time of the assault to come forward and therefore denied to waive the statute of limitations.

A key difference between the Doe case and the Nassar victims is that in Doe, the plaintiff knew he was being sexually assaulted. Many of Nassar’s victims were told his actions were part of ordinary medical care. It was only when other victims started to come forward that they realized a crime had been committed against them.

What Does the Future Hold for the Nassar Case?

Going forward, it is unclear how the court will decide. The next step is for Judge Quist to determine whether or not to dismiss the suits against Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. He is unlikely to dismiss the case as long as the plaintiff’s claims could lead to potential liability.

Assuming the case is not dismissed, the case will go into the pretrial discovery phase where both Michigan State and USA Gymnastics will be required to release potentially damaging emails and texts as well as to give depositions sworn under oath.

Depending on the results of discovery, the plaintiffs will likely then file a motion for summary judgment, which indicates they are deserving of damages as a matter of law. If the motion is denied, the case will go to trial, which might take years to deliver closure. Whether or not Nassar’s victims will prevail in their quest for justice remains unclear, but one thing that’s certain is that unfortunately, they have a long legal battle ahead.