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Lawsuit seeking class-action status filed over alleged UM doctor abuse

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A lawsuit seeking to be certified as a class action was filed Monday against the University of Michigan in connection with sexual abuse allegations against the late Dr. Robert E. Anderson.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, names UM and the Board of Regents as defendants, alleging the university allowed Anderson to sexually abuse students while employed by UM from 1968 until 2003.

The complaint was filed by the Miller Law Firm; Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein; and Sauder Schelkopf.

Dr. Robert E. Anderson

Annika K. Martin, a New York-based lawyer leading the case for Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, said it's not clear how many plaintiffs will be represented in the suit. “Given the length of his tenure, we estimate it is going to be thousands,” Martin said.

Anderson was the head of University Health Service and team physician for the UM Athletic Department. He died in 2008.

"UM had and has a duty to protect the health and safety of its students, and this duty includes protecting them from sexual assaults by UM employees, and responding properly if a sexual assault does occur," the lawsuit said.

"UM violated this duty by failing to implement and enforce appropriate policies and procedures to prevent, and properly respond to, sexual assaults of its students; by ignoring and concealing complaints of sexual assaults by Anderson; by retaliating against those who did report misconduct by Anderson; and by failing to properly supervise Anderson and terminate him."

In response to a request for comment on the lawsuit, UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen repeated a statement the university issued Sunday in response to other complaints.

"Again, we share the same goal of gathering all the facts, including understanding the full scope of the harm caused by Dr. Robert E. Anderson and the institutional failings of the university," she said.

The lawsuit is the latest filed against UM since allegations emerged last month that Anderson allegedly assaulted male patients. Former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and Southfield-based lawyer David Shea filed the first lawsuits last week and over the weekend, including one that alleged a UM track runner had told two of his coaches about Anderson.

The lawsuit that seeks to become class action was brought on behalf of former student-patients who allege Anderson used his position to "repeatedly and regularly sexually assault" students under the guise of medical care, according to the lawsuit.

Named as the lead plaintiff is John Doe, a former UM football player who attended the university on an academic scholarship from 1989 to 1993. He was required to see Anderson approximately six times for physicals and medical ailments while playing football and was assaulted during every visit, according to the suit.

"At each visit, Anderson ordered plaintiff to remove his pants or shorts and underwear," according to the suit. "Then, with no explanation given — or consent offered — Anderson examined, handled, and fondled plaintiff’s penis and testicles. Anderson next instructed plaintiff to turn around, after which Anderson digitally penetrated plaintiff’s anus and probed his interior, causing plaintiff shock, pain and shame."

The suit said the man trusted Anderson.

"Despite his shock, pain and trauma, he rationalized Anderson’s abuse as part of normal medical protocol," said the lawsuit. "Plaintiff believed that UM’s prestigious football team would provide the best possible doctors to care for its players. Plaintiff thus believed Anderson must have had a legitimate medical purpose for his examinations."

The suit said the former football player still suffers from repercussions of the alleged abuse.

"He has difficulty trusting people," the suit said. "Doctor visits remain anxiety inducing, often causing him to postpone appointments repeatedly. His abuse by Anderson continues to cause him numerous emotional and psychological trauma. Plaintiff suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, for which he sees a therapist and psychiatrist."

The lawsuit says UM heard complaints about Anderson after his hiring in 1968 during medical exams. 

“The patient-physician relationship involves a solemn commitment and trust," the lawsuit said.“For decades, the University of Michigan ('UM') allowed and enabled a physician in its employ, Dr. Robert E. Anderson ('Anderson') to continuously violate that solemn trust. In so doing, UM itself violated the trust of thousands of young male students."