MSU: Nassar victim settlements stall amid legislation
Lansing — Michigan State University has been negotiating with lawyers representing victims in the civil lawsuits linked to the Larry Nassar scandal but talks broke down after a package of sexual assault bills was introduced in the Michigan Legislature, a university spokesperson said Thursday.
But attorneys representing more than 200 women and girls who are suing Nassar, Michigan State and other institutions dispute that characterization and say victims remain interested in settling their cases out of court.
The issue, involving a potential financial settlement to victims that could exceed $1 billion, is expected to emerge when Interim MSU President John Engler testifies before a legislative subcommittee Thursday, said Engler’s spokesman John Truscott.
“The lawyers stopped meeting,” Truscott said. “So MSU hasn’t been able to move the issue forward toward a resolution.”
John Manly, an attorney representing more than 150 Nassar victims, said any suggestion negotiations have stalled because of the sweeping sexual assault prevention legislation is “just a lie.”
There have been no negotiations “in terms of dollars” since November, Manly told The Detroit News. The 10-bill package approved by the Senate this week was introduced in late February.
MSU attorney Pat Fitzgerald has “been calling us for weeks” trying to set up mediation, including Wednesday night, and victim attorneys have been trying to schedule a meeting, he said.
“They’ve approached us, and we’ve been agreeable to it,” Manly said. “The idea that this legislation is causing this is laughable. It’s what’s driving it, but you shouldn’t need anything to drive negotiations. This is the right thing to do.”
The 10-bill package approved Thursday by the Michigan Senate would retroactively extend the civil statute of limitations to allow lawsuits by minors who were assaulted at any point since 1997. They would have a one-year window to file claims against individuals or institutions that harmed them.
Other bills in the package would limit claims of governmental immunity by institutions like MSU, strengthen mandatory sexual abuse reporter laws and extend the criminal statute of limitations in future cases.
Manly, who said he has not been paying much attention to debate over the bills, told The News that Nassar’s victims want to settle with MSU rather than go to court again to discuss intimate details about their assault.
A settlement would “cost far less” than the “irreparable damage being done to MSU by the people running it,” he said, suggesting Engler has repeatedly alienated Nassar’s victims since taking over the interim presidency in late January.
“I’m convinced that until Mr. Engler is gone or he does a full-stop on this attack stuff, that nothing is going to happen and that these women are going to continue to be injured,” Manly said.
Okemos-based lawyer Mick Grewal agreed, adding that attorneys have been open to returning to mediation with the university for the past two months since Engler took over and were in talks this week about the parameters.
“MSU is refusing to set a date and time, not us,” Grewal said.
Discussions to mediate the cases broke down in December, Grewal said, but re-emerged behind the scenes when Engler stepped in after more than 200 victims gave impact statements about Nassar’s abuse in two courtrooms and former President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hillis resigned. Since then, attorneys have been trying to get MSU to agree to parameters but the ball is in their court.
“MSU is splaying both side of the fence right now,” Grewal said. “On one hand, they want to look good to the public with Engler making statements that he wants to treat the victims as if these were his daughters. On the other hand, they are accusing the plaintiffs of not following through with mediation and going to the Legislature and trying to oppose some of the bills.
“How can they say they want to protect the survivors but they won’t get back to us on mediation?”
The issue comes during a tense time between MSU, lawmakers and Nassar’s victims.
Engler met with lawmakers this week about the sexual assault prevention legislation to persuade them to delay voting so the financial implications of the bills could be assessed.
But Engler’s move was blasted by Rachael Denhollander, the woman whose story about Nassar’s sexual assault led to other women coming forward and the sports doctor’s eventual sentencing essentially to life in prison.
“He chose to stand against every child and every sexual assault victim in the entire state, to protect an institution,” Denhollander said in a report published by ESPN. “That is despicable and says everything we need to know about what he will value as a leader. Just as terrible, the MSU board let him do it.”
Truscott was quoted as saying he thought it was inappropriate for someone to try to weigh in on something “they knew nothing about.”
“Here you have people who don’t have experience in legislative process making comment about legislative process,” Truscott said.
His comment drew a tweet from Denhollander, a lawyer who previously worked as a legislative assistant.
“MSU’s spokesman says I have no business expressing concern that MSU’s president personally tried to kill legislation to protect children from abuse, because I am talking about something I know nothing about,” Denhollander said. “This is how MSU treats sexual assault survivors.”
Truscott told The Detroit News he was taken out of context in the ESPN story, and Denhollander “was commenting on a private meeting and her assumptions were incorrect.”
Regardless, Denhollander said Thursday that she remains committed to the legislation, which she stressed is not a “Nassar package.”
“This has to be done because Michigan is in the bottom four states in the country in protecting our children and sexual assault victims,” she said.