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California Court Rules on Sexual Abuse Claim Against US Olympic Committee

In California, victims of sexual assault and abuse have a right to file a civil lawsuit against their abusers and other parties responsible for what happened. However, when the defendant is a third party that did not cause the abuser’s conduct or the resulting abuse, the court will generally find that no duty exists. There is an exception to this general rule when the third party has a special relationship with either the perpetrator or the victim. In Brown v. USA Taekwondo, Cal. Sup. Ct. Case No. S259216, the California Supreme Court established a two-step framework for determining whether a special relationship and an affirmative duty to protect exists.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Yazmin Brown, Brianna Bordon, and Kendra Gatt trained in taekwondo for the Olympics when they were teenagers. Each of the three athletes was coached by Marc Gitelman and frequently traveled with him to competitions and training events in California and throughout the country. Gitelman sexually abused each of the teens when they traveled to competitions. His abuse continued for several years until he was banned from coaching by USA Taekwondo. Subsequently, Gitelman was convicted of multiple felony sex abuse offenses for his sexual assaults and abuse of the three teen girls.

Brown and the other two girls filed a lawsuit against Gitelman, USA Taekwondo, and the U.S. Olympic Committee for sexual assault and abuse. The U.S. Olympic Committee is responsible for coordinating amateur sports competitions across the U.S. for athletes who hope to compete at the Olympics. The USOC is responsible for certifying and overseeing the governing bodies of each participating sport, including USA Taekwondo. Athletes who hope to one day compete in the Olympics in Taekwondo must be members of USAT and train with a USAT coach. Gitelman was a USAT coach until he was banned by the governing body.

Brown alleged that the USOC and USAT negligently failed to protect the plaintiffs from being sexually abused by Gitelman. She argued that sexual abuse of minor athletes by their coaches had been a known problem since at least the 1980s when several cases were reported. After the incidents in the 1980s, the USOC had mandated all governing bodies of various sports implement safe sport programs to protect their athletes from sexual abuse. The USOC placed USAT on probation after it failed to timely implement a program.

Brown also alleged that USAT was slow to take action against Gitelman after she and the other plaintiffs complained. Initially, he was suspended temporarily but was still allowed to coach at USAT competitions for a few months before he was permanently banned.

USAT and USOC both filed demurrers to Brown’s civil complaint. The trial court granted both motions, agreeing that Brown had not sufficiently alleged that either organization had an affirmative duty to protect her or the other plaintiffs from abuse. The trial court did not give Brown the opportunity to amend her complaint and dismissed the cases against both USOC and USAT. Brown appealed the trial court’s decision to the California Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal of USOC from the action but reversed the decision for USAT. The Court of Appeal used a two-part analysis to determine whether Brown had adequately alleged the parties had an affirmative duty to keep the athletes safe from abuse. Under this approach, the court found that the general rule is that no one owes an affirmative duty to control the actions of someone else or to warn people of potential harm from the third party. However, the Court of Appeal also noted that there is an exception to this rule when the plaintiff establishes a special relationship exists between the defendant and the victim or the third party who causes harm.

However, the Court of Appeal noted that when a special relationship is found, the court must consider the factors under Rowland v. Christian, 69 Cal.2d 108 (1968).[2] The court then considered whether Brown had adequately alleged the existence of a special relationship and whether its scope was limited by the policy considerations outlined in Rowland. After following this two-part approach, the Court of Appeal found that Brown had adequately alleged the special relationship of USAT and that the Rowland factors did not weigh against finding that the affirmative duty to protect the athletes was owed. The Court of Appeal pointed out that USAT took steps to control Gitelman’s actions by registering him as a coach and ultimately banning him from the sport.

The Court of Appeal did not find that a special relationship existed between USOC and Gitelman or the athletes, however. The Court of Appeal found that USOC’s ability to regulate USAT was not enough to support the existence of a special relationship between the organization and Gitelman or the plaintiffs. Brown filed a writ of certiorari to the California Supreme Court, which was granted.

Issue: Whether the Court of Appeal used the correct two-step process or should have used a framework of establishing a special relationship or using the Rowland factors?

The California Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether the framework the Court of Appeal used was correct. This is because different courts had followed different approaches, resulting in conflicting bodies of law. Some courts implemented the two-step framework used by the Court of Appeal in the Brown decision while others instead implemented an either-or framework. Under the second approach, courts would find an affirmative duty if a plaintiff was able to establish either that a special relationship existed or that the public policy considerations in Rowland weighed in favor of finding an affirmative duty to protect should exist.

Rule: To prove a negligence cause of action, a plaintiff must present evidence showing each of the required elements, including that a duty existed.

To prevail on a negligence cause of action, a plaintiff must prove each of the negligence elements by a preponderance of the evidence. If a plaintiff is unable to prove one of the elements, he or she will not prevail in the action. These elements include duty, breach, causation, and damage. However, the courts in California had different approaches to finding whether an affirmative duty to protect was owed to a victim because of the actions of a third party. The Supreme Court wanted to settle the conflict and establish a single framework for the courts to follow.

Analysis

The California Supreme Court began by noting that a finding of duty is not universal. Instead, defendants only owe a duty of care to plaintiffs when the plaintiffs are entitled to legal protection from the defendants’ actions. Under Cal. Civ. Code § 1714, people owe an ordinary duty of care to act reasonably so that the safety of others will be protected.[3] However, under the general rule, a person will not be responsible when he or she did not cause the situation that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries or for failing to affirmatively act to protect the safety of others. In general, people and organizations do not owe a duty to control the conduct of others to protect victims from harm.

Many cases of sexual assault and abuse arise when an employee of an organization, including a religious organization, camp, school, or university, takes advantage of his or her position and sexually abuses a client or student of the organization. As we have previously noted, in those types of situations, it may be possible to hold the employer liable for the actions of the employee in committing the sexual abuse of the victim.[4] This is because an exception exists when an employee causes an injury to someone else while working within the scope and course of employment under a legal principle called respondeat superior. In this case, however, Gitelman was not employed by USAT or USOC, so that exception did not apply.

Other exceptions have been recognized, including when a defendant has an affirmative duty to protect a victim from harm caused by a third party under specific circumstances. One of these exceptions occurs when the defendant has a special relationship with either the third party that causes harm or to the victims who are injured. A special relationship exists between a defendant and a third party when the defendant has the ability to control the third party’s conduct.

Brown argued that even if a special relationship does not exist, a sexual assault or abuse victim should still be able to hold an organization liable for the actions of a dangerous third party if the policy considerations under Rowland weigh in favor of imposing an affirmative duty. As we previously explained, the Rowland case established a reasonableness standard for third-party property owners for people who came onto their property regardless of whether they were trespassers, invitees, or licensees.[5] This case was important because it included a number of factors concerning the foreseeability of harm.

Brown argued that the Rowland factors can be applied to establish an affirmative duty when no special relationship exists. However, the California Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the factors are instead applied to limit the ability to find a duty rather than establishing that one is owed.

The California Supreme Court then looked at USOC and USAT. It found that USOC’s ability to regulate USAT did not mean that it had a special relationship with either Gitelman or the athletes and affirmed its dismissal from the case. The court found that the Court of Appeal was correct in reversing the decision to dismiss USAT, however. It found that a special relationship existed between USAT and Gitelman because it had taken steps to control Gitelman’s actions and thus had an affirmative duty to protect the teen athletes from being sexually assaulted and abused.

Conclusion

The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings. The framework used by the Court of Appeal in determining whether an affirmative duty existed was affirmed.

Talk to an experienced sexual assault and abuse attorney in Los Angeles

If you have suffered sexual assault or abuse, you should talk to an experienced attorney at the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us today by calling 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/2021/s259216.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2021-04-09-personal-injury-acd8ea9617&utm_content=text-case-title-6

[2] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/2d/69/108.html

[3] https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=1714.&lawCode=CIV

[4] https://www.victimslawyer.com/sexual-assault-and-abuse.html

[5] https://www.californiaaccidentattorneysblog.com/california-personal-injury-laws-famous-cases-rowland-v-christian/

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