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Nassar accusers ‘hopeful’ as mediation begins

Kim Kozlowski

Controversial demands are expected to emerge from both sides as Larry Nassar’s accusers and Michigan State University renew efforts Wednesday to settle hundreds of sex abuse lawsuits through mediation.

They could include a request from accusers that the entire MSU Board of Trustees resign, some say, or pressure from the university to drop proposed legislation that would extend the statute of limitations in a legislative package inspired by the scandal that spanned more than 20 years involving hundreds of women and girls.

Lawyers declined to offer specific details of their plans, saying they’re sworn to secrecy about discussions that occur during the mediation process. But in general, mediation typically includes discussions about other issues outside a financial agreement.

“There’s always discussion on making changes to making sure (another Nassar) won’t happen again,” said Grand Rapids-based attorney Stephen Drew, who is representing some of Nassar’s accusers. “We’ll have to see what happens.”

The highly anticipated mediation gets underway Wednesday and Thursday in New York with the goal of reaching a settlement that some believe will close the long chapter of Nassar, who admitted to possessing images of child pornography and sexually abusing females under the guise of a medical treatment for more than two decades.

There is a lot at stake, said John Manly, a California-based attorney who represents the bulk of Nassar’s accusers in litigation. He hopes the cases are resolved and there is a change in the culture at MSU so this never happens again.

“What is at stake here is the future of one of the finest universities in the nation,” Manly said. “There’s a fork in the road. One way is to healing and recovery and establishing Michigan State to the place it belongs. The other road is disaster for Michigan State and more pain for Nassar survivors.

“That choice is up to (interim MSU President) John Engler and the board. We hope, somehow, for the first time, they do the right thing.”

But will MSU be able to reach a settlement with a a group of plaintiffs that lawyers now say exceeds 300? Joel Ferguson, vice chair of the board, said he trusts those hired by MSU to reach a resolution on the civil lawsuits will be able to do so.

“Get it behind us,” he said. “No one wants to keep this going forever.”

If the parties come to a resolution, it is expected to be one of the largest sexual assault settlements in history, far eclipsing the agreement Penn State University reached with victims in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. Penn State’s agreement was reached with 33 victims, whereas MSU is facing nearly 10 times more plaintiffs.

Lawsuits from victims of Sandusky ended up costing $109 million in settlements. The former Nittany Lions football coach is serving 30-60 years in prison for the sexual abuse of boys.

The potential costs MSU is facing are still unclear. Estimates range from $500 million to $1 billion. Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney signed a confidentiality agreement with USA Gymnastics after reportedly reaching a settlement of $1.25 million over her Nassar abuse.

MSU’s insurance policy with United Educators shows there is a $39 million limit for sexual molestation. But it is unclear what that policy will cover, said Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for the university.

“Other than insurance, the university must use the funds it has available to it that are not tied up in endowment,” Guerrant said.

Both sides say it will be a victory if they reach a settlement.

“We need a just and equitable resolution so we can begin the healing,” MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam said.

Okemos-based attorney Mick Grewal added that a fair settlement, combined with input from Nassar’s accusers, will change the trajectory of the relationship between the young women and MSU.

“If the survivors feel like they are being heard and can assistant in implementing policy changes, that will be a step in the right direction,” Grewal said.

The renewed effort to settle the lawsuits comes after MSU, along with the other defendants, entered into mediation with the lawyers for the plaintiffs in August before Nassar was sentenced in two courts for first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Nassar is now in a high-security federal prison in Arizona, where he is expected to spend the rest of his life.

But the mediation effort, which included meetings in Grand Rapids and Chicago, failed in December.

During that mediation, Lou Anna Simon was leading the university as president, but she resigned a month later under pressure at the height of the criminal proceedings for Nassar. During this mediation, Engler is at MSU’s helm, and he has said he wants to settle the lawsuits.

“I came to MSU with the intention of concluding the lawsuits as soon as possible in a fair and just manner,” Engler said in a statement in March. “The survivors should not have to endure years of litigation.”

Scores of attorneys will be present at the mediation, along with representatives from the university’s insurance company and possibly some women who are part of the civil litigation. The mediation for MSU will be led by former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young Jr., whom Engler appointed in February.

The first civil lawsuits were filed in January 2017 against MSU, Nassar and other institutions such as USA Gymnastics and Gedderts’ Twistars USA, a Lansing area gymnastics club. The earliest suits were filed by a handful of Nassar accusers but have since multiplied.

Other defendants in the federal lawsuits include the Board of Trustees and a number of current and former MSU employees: Kathie Klages, William Strampel, Dr. Douglas Dietzel, Dr. Jefrey Kovan, Dr. Brooke Lemmen and Kristine Moore.

Parties on both sides have expressed confidence in a new mediator, Layn Phillips, a former U.S. attorney and a former federal judge in Oklahoma with a respected reputation of bringing parties to resolution.

In early January, just before more than 150 women and girls testified about Nassar’s sexual abuse, MSU filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits. Their arguments: MSU is a governmental entity and immune to being sued, and the statute of limitations had expired on many claims.

In spite of the past, both sides are feeling hopeful.

“MSU is truly sorry for the abuse so many young women at the hands of Larry Nassar,” Guerrant said. “We are working hard to make needed changes on campus so that a situation like this can never happen again, and so that no student ever feels unsafe. We are hopeful for a successful mediation.”

Sterling Riethman, among Nassar’s accusers, said everyone is taking things “one step at a time” right now.

“While I’d love to see closure soon, I’m just hopeful for progress,” said Riethman, 25, a Kalamazoo resident.

“If everyone can come to the table ready and be willing to discuss how to help the community heal instead of approaching this week as another fight against us, I would consider that a victory.”