University of California reaches record settlement over sexual abuse case

It's the largest payout related to sexual abuse involving a public university

University of California reaches record settlement over sexual abuse case

The University of California (UC) has agreed to settle lawsuits brought by hundreds of alleged victims of a former University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) gynecologist.

At nearly $700 million, it’s the largest payout ever related to sexual abuse involving a public university.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has approved the latest $374.4 million in settlements, which covers 312 former patients who alleged they were abused by Dr. James Heaps under the guise of medical examinations between 1983 and 2018, the Los Angeles Times reported.

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That’s on top of a $243.6-million settlement of more than 200 women’s lawsuits and a $73-million class-action settlement involving more than 5,000 patients of Heaps dating to 1983. In 2019, the UC system also paid $2.25 million to settle a lawsuit by a patient who alleged she was sexually assaulted in 2018.

“The conduct alleged to have been committed by Heaps is reprehensible and contrary to the University’s values,” UCLA said in a statement announcing the settlement. “Our first and highest obligation will always be to the communities we serve, and we hope this settlement is one step toward providing healing and closure for the plaintiffs involved. We admire the plaintiffs’ courage in coming forward and appreciate plaintiffs’ counsel’s commitment to resolving the claims.”

Attorney Jennifer McGrath, who represents the plaintiffs, claimed UCLA ignored the reports of patients and employees for decades because Heaps was the top earner for UCLA Health. “It’s a culture of silence,” she said. “UCLA still hasn’t disciplined or terminated any decision makers who allowed Heaps to keep practicing.”

Hundreds of women have alleged that he subjected them to inappropriate comments, touched them sexually during exams without wearing gloves and simulated intercourse with an ultrasound probe. Arrested in 2019, Heaps is still facing criminal charges involving seven of those patients. In May 2021, Heaps was indicted by a grand jury on 21 felony counts, including sexual battery by fraud, sexual exploitation of a patient and sexual penetration of an unconscious person involving seven patients from 2011 to 2018. If convicted, he could be sentenced to more than 67 years in prison.

Heaps has denied any wrongdoing.

A UC system report found that UCLA repeatedly failed to investigate the allegations adequately, receiving reports since the ‘90s. Furthermore, UCLA allowed Heaps to return to practice in 2018 to find new victims, the suits claim, even though top university officials knew of an ongoing internal investigation. UCLA made no public statements about his alleged conduct upon his retirement in 2018 after the school declined to renew his contract.

UCLA notified law enforcement of the allegations against Heaps in June 2018. His medical license was suspended in 2019 after he pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.

Earlier this year, the University of Michigan reached a $490 million settlement with more than 1,000 former students, who said they were sexually assaulted by a former physician in the school's athletic department. Robert Anderson, the accused physician, worked for the school from 1966 to 2003. Since his death in 2008, hundreds upon hundreds of individuals have come forward to report instances of sexual misconduct committed by the doctor, according to the Michigan Daily.

One month later, a former Fresno State president came under fire after a report detailed how he mishandled sexual harassment allegations against a former vice president of student affairs at the university. A USA Today story noted that former president Dr. Joseph I. Castro, along with the school’s HR department and its Title IX office, received at least 12 complaints about Frank Lamas over a six-year period, The Fresno Bee reported.

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