University of Michigan Union
(Wikimedia Commons)

MI Rep. Ryan Berman says victims of Robert Anderson should “seek the justice they believe they deserve.”

Two bills were introduced on the steps of the state capitol last Wednesday that would make it easier for former University of Michigan students who have accused the school’s former physician Robert Anderson of sexual assault to sue the university.

The bills are sponsored by Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, who is Jewish, and Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit. The bills were announced alongside three former U-M athletes who allege abuse by Anderson: former U-M football players Jon Vaughn and Dr. John Lott, and Tad DeLuca, a former U-M wrestler.

Berman, an alum of Michigan State University, kept up to date on and was impacted by the Larry Nassar sexual assault case at his university. He wasn’t in office at the time, but he believes that the survivors there didn’t receive the support and assurances they deserved quickly enough, and that the U-M Robert Anderson sexual assault cases are a chance to help hold institutions accountable.

Rep. Ryan Berman

“Whether Michigan State intended to or not, we heard about them stumbling into doing the right thing, in putting things in place to help these survivors, in trying to make them whole, in instituting changes,” Rep. Berman said.

The lack of support and assurances in a timely manner for the MSU survivors can be traced back to an important exemption in universities typically having governmental immunity from lawsuits: improper medical care. MSU attempted to dismiss Nassar-related lawsuits by saying Nassar was sexually assaulting individuals, not providing medical care.

To Berman’s understanding, U-M is willing to compensate the survivors and give out of court settlements, but in order to do so, they’re trying to get the lawsuits thrown out through the immunity loophole.

Seeing what happened at MSU, Berman created a governmental immunity bill with that loophole in mind, hoping to aid survivors in getting their day in court by halting the immunity.

“My bill says that if the assault came under the guise of medical care, and the University knew or should’ve known that the assaults were taking place and didn’t do anything to prevent them, then they don’t get immunity and they’re liable,” he said.

Victims of Larry Nassar had pushed for legislation that would’ve ended any governmental immunity as it relates to sexual abuse, immunity of which MSU has used as a legal shield for many years, but dropped it as part of a $500 million settlement.

A companion statute of limitations bill announced last Wednesday would amend the three-year statue of limitations law related to sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment, opening up a one-year window for victims of abuse to come forward and file suit, no matter how long ago it occurred.

“Our law still isn’t in the best position to allow these survivors to seek the justice they believe they deserve and I believe they deserve,” Rep. Berman said. “We shouldn’t use our laws the way they are. We need to make a change to empower (the survivors) to seek justice, and not have justice denied.”

Over 100 lawsuits have been filed against U-M in connection with Anderson’s sexual abuse. He served as director of University Health Service from 1968-80, and then served as the team physician for the U-M Athletic Department until 2003. He died in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the first accusation against him was made public.

Berman believes the strength it takes for survivors to come forward shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“Having that courage in the face of stigma, I think that’s what brought about these bills, we owe it to them to help in any way we can,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Me Too movement, it’s ‘hey, you’re not alone’ and all of a sudden more people are coming out and it gets bigger and bigger.”

In a statement, U-M Spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told the JN that the university is currently engaged in mediation with representatives from a number of former patients while its own independent investigation of the abuse remains active. He did not address the proposed new bill.

“The university is eager to engage with former patients and their attorneys regarding the best approach to resolving these claims,” the statement reads. “We want to bring closure for those who have so bravely come forward to share their experiences and want to develop a fair resolution process that does not require drawn-out litigation.”

According to Rep. Berman, the bills would not only help individuals suing the University of Michigan, but also any individual sexually abused under the guise of medical treatment.

“What these bills do is hold any agency accountable, not just U-M, for their actions or inactions,” he said. “I think it sends a strong message moving forward.”

After the bills were introduced last week, they were referred to the Judiciary Committee, which Rep. Berman is a member of. Berman has been in contact with the committee’s Chairman, Rep. Graham Filler (R-Clinton County), trying to lock in a hearing date for the bills, and is hoping a date is set sooner rather than later.

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