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Legislation would remove legal barriers to lawsuits filed against UM's Anderson, others

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Legislature will consider bills that would allow accusers of former University of Michigan physician Robert Anderson to sue the university for their alleged sexual assault by altering the statute of limitations and curbing the university's governmental immunity.

The bills would not only aid individuals suing the University of Michigan, but any individual sexually abused under the guise of medical treatment.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, and Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, were announced from the Capitol steps on Wednesday alongside three former UM athletes who allege abuse by Anderson.

Former UM football player Jon Vaughn speaks during a press conference Wednesday about legislation to remove barriers for victims of sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment to sue governmental institutions. Vaughn and dozens of other UM athletes say they were abused by the late UM physician Robert Anderson.

Jon Vaughn, a UM football player from 1988-90, said he shared his story of abuse by Anderson and supported the legislation in order to give voice to those unable to speak about their experiences. 

"I will continue my fight for justice for all victims," Vaughn said. "I will not be silenced. I will fight for all those who feel they do not have a voice.

"I am not John Doe," he said. "I am Jon Vaughn."

Whitsett, while announcing the legislation, said she also was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a physician at the age of 28. Whitsett said she didn't report the incident out of fear she would go "through another level of traumatic victimization."

"I didn't want to be blamed — Did I put myself in the wrong position? Was it my fault for being there? Did I make this happen?" she said, noting those are questions that go through many victims' minds.

"By extending the statute of limitations to give victims time to seek counseling, we build a support system so that they are willing to come forward by bringing their predators to justice," Whitsett said.

Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, and Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Townsip, speak after a press conference Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, announcing legislation that would remove some barriers for victims of sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment to sue governmental institutions

More than 100 lawsuits have been filed against UM in connection with the alleged sexual abuse by Anderson. He served as director of the University Health Service and team physician for the UM Athletic Department from 1968-2003. He died in 2008. 

The University of Michigan is reviewing the legislative proposal, said spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald declined further comment because of an ongoing inquiry by a law firm the university hired to examine the alleged sexual abuse.

The legislation announced Wednesday would create a one-year window in which individuals could file suit for sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment regardless of the three-year statute of limitations in which claimants must file  to allege personal injury.

The law currently provides an exemption from that statute of limitations if the defendant tried to cover up the incident, but UM claims it didn't conceal the assaults.

The planned window for lawsuits is similar to the 90-day window given to individuals who wanted to file against former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar. 

While the window would help UM claimants, it would also apply to anyone abused under the guise of medical treatment.

"This type of behavior must be stopped, as should the legal tactics used to protect these institutions from lawsuits when the abuse occurs," Berman said.

"Our purpose today is simple: Survivors must be allowed to pursue justice as they see fit," he said.

The legislation announced Wednesday also would close a loophole in the state's governmental immunity law. 

Usually, universities' governmental immunity from lawsuits includes an exemption for improper medical care. But at MSU, the university attempted to dismiss Nassar-related lawsuits by saying Nassar was sexually assaulting individuals, not providing medical care, Berman said.

To close that loophole, the bills would revoke governmental immunity if an individual was abused "under the guise of medical care and the school knew or should have known" and did not act to stop the abuse.

"That would apply to not just the universities but any other governmental institution also," Berman said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com