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The University of Tennessee Rape Case – A Civil Perspective

July 27, 2016

The University of Tennessee Rape Case – A Civil Perspective

University of Tennessee (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

It seems at present we live in a world where our college campuses are out of control. As I have written on this blog in the past, I am the father of teenage girls. I have sent one off to college and the other is not far behind. I think and hope I have done all I can to keep my children safe when they “leave the nest.” As the author Gavin de Becker counseled, I have tried to instill my girls with the “gift of fear.” I know they are bright and make good decisions but I also know the risks.

How Do We Address the Campus Assault Problems?

I have lamented time and time again at the proceedings of high-profile campus rape cases. This includes dangers close to home- The Vanderbilt Rape case and most recently, The University of Tennessee rape case. On shores farther from home, there is the outrageous Stanford University case wherein Brock Turner was sentenced to a meager six months in jail after a sexual assault conviction.

All of this got me to thinking, irrespective of criminal justice, or in the case of Turner, the lack thereof, what is the role of the University in addressing this problem. And given Universities seem to be failing, what is the role of the civil trial lawyer in fixing this. More specifically, as stories of campus assault continue to surface, how do we demand change, and not merely lip service, from the colleges which have mishandled such allegations?

Need for a “people’s watchdog”

In 1965, a civil attorney by the name of Ralph Nader came into his role as the “people’s watchdog” following a highly publicized lawsuit against General Motors_._ The case was the result of Nader’s book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which called attention to the dangerous rear-motor design of the Chevrolet Corvair. GM, unable to defend its product against the multiple reports of death due to the car’s flawed design, resorted to infringement of the attorney’s privacy, trying to catch him in a scandal.

Nader, however, refused to back down, criticizing the company’s apparent disregard for consumers’ safety in favor of protecting profits.

This one case, though only settling for just over four hundred thousand dollars, set a precedent for automobile safety that almost singlehandedly led to Congress’ unanimous passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. I cannot help but reflect on his story when considering the implications of the recent University of Tennessee- Knoxville civil lawsuit regarding the institution’s handling of sexual assaults filed internally.

The University of Tennessee- Knoxville has disavowed any role in allowing the eight reported sexual assaults involved in this case. They have reached a 2.5 million dollar settlement, the third in the two years of Dave Hart’s leadership in the athletic department. I am baffled, on a moral level, by the University’s unwillingness to accept blame, but upon considering mercenary interests, I am forced to concede their reasoning behind pleading innocence.

Reputation is everything for these organizations. A winning athletic record and constantly improving facilities are not attainable without donors; donors are not attainable without fostering fond ideas of the campus community. Assault charges correctly tarnish a school’s reputation, so the university will take great lengths to absolve itself of any guilt. Much like in the case against Chevrolet, handling consumers’ complaints is considered more strategic than initiating a shift in the way the situation in question is handled.

Thus comes the need for a “people’s watchdog,” and another one, and another one. In a college culture in which the University benefits by plausible denial of responsibility, all the while failing to effect change, how do we protect our children?

The Answer is Civil Prosecution

The answer is civil prosecution. There is no question that athletics are an astonishing source of revenue for colleges. However, we as lawyers prevent these institutions from turning a blind eye in the name of “football finances.”

While I, as a Plaintiff’s lawyer, work to obtain some form of justice for my clients, there is a collateral benefit. A civil verdict has a far reaching impact. Specifically, the University takes a hit, both to finances and reputation. These hits ultimately will force defendants to choose people over profits, if for no other reason than it is financially beneficial.

It is astounding that we have a college culture wherein the University is more concerned that anyone can use any bathroom than preventing assault. Through the efforts of trial lawyers, fighting this David and Goliath fight, we can impact culture and force schools to realize student’s safety is at least as important as toilet rights.

Make the World a Better and Safer Place

I have reached the point in my legal career where I have an understanding of what motivates me. Frankly, that is trying to make the world a better and safer place for my daughters. When my children reached driving age, I realized how big a problem we have with texting and driving and have actively taken strides to eliminate that problem.

Now that my kids have reached college age, I am acutely aware of the problems we have on our campuses and I pledge to do what I can, as a trial lawyer, to improve that environment as well.