Sexual abuse is a prevalent problem in youth sports. Many people have heard about the pervasive sexual abuse that was perpetrated against Olympic gymnasts by a gymnastics doctor. In Brown v. USA Taekwondo, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B280550, the court considered whether organizations could be held to be responsible for the sexual assaults and abuse that are perpetrated by coaches that are certified through the organizations.
Factual and procedural background
Brianna Bordon, Kendra Gatt, and Yazmin Brown were teenagers who took taekwondo lessons from Marc Gitelman, who was certified by USA Taekwondo to coach athletes who wanted to try to be selected for the Olympics. All three girls were 15 or 16 at the time. Gitelman sexually abused all three girls, and he was subsequently arrested and convicted of several felonies.
In June 2007, Bordon and Gitelman attended a USAT and USOC sanctioned taekwondo event in Fresno, California. Gitelman asked Bordon to come to his hotel room to review a video of one of her fights. When she was in his room, Gitelman sexually molested her. Bordon was 15 years old at the time. in May 2008, Gitelman and Bordon drove to a competition in the City of Industry, California. During the trip from Nevada, Gitelman made Bordon perform oral sex on him. When they reached the hotel, Gitelman asked Bordon to review fights in his room. He gave her alcohol and then sexually molested her. He again molested Bordon at the Olympic training center village dormitory in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Gitelman repeatedly molested Bordon at USAT and USOC sanctioned events until she quit taekwondo in 2010.
In March or May of 2010, Gitelman, Brown, and Gatt traveled to the City of Industry to participate in a USAT and USOC competition. Gitelman invited both girls and a third girl to his hotel room and gave them alcohol. He had the girls play a drinking game until they were drunk. Brown laid down on the bed because she was intoxicated, and Gitelman lifted her shorts and molested her. Gatt helped Brown to walk back to her room and returned to Gitelman’s room. He then gave Gatt more alcohol before telling her to lie down on the bed. He then sexually molested Gatt. Throughout 2010, Gitelman continued to give Gatt alcohol and to molest her at the NV Taekwondo Fitness and Training Center, where he worked. Gitelman also continued to sexually abuse Brown from 2011 to 2013 at USAT and USOC sanctioned events.
Gitelman lived in California but worked at NVT in Nevada. USA Taekwondo had certified him as a coach, and the US Olympic Committee was responsible for certifying and decertifying governing bodies in the U.S. for the sport of taekwondo. Bordon, Gatt, and Brown filed a lawsuit against Gitelman, USAT, NV Taekwondo Training and Fitness Center, USOC, the California Unified Taekwondo Association, and the Latin American International Taekwondo Foundation for negligence, negligent hiring, negligent retention, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The plaintiffs alleged that Gitelman did not hide his relationships with any of them and openly carried on relationships at all of the events. They also alleged that the director of ethics for USOC had actual knowledge of their complaints about Gitelman in Sept. 2013. In Oct. 2013, the CEO and the ethics committee chair of the USAT voted to suspend Gitelman pending a hearing. Brown appeared at the hearing pro se, and Gitelman appeared with an attorney. The hearing panel recommended Gitelman’s termination, but the board’s president refused to present the recommendation to the full board of directors. Gitelman was allowed to continue coaching through 2014 and was not banned until Sept. 2015. Gitelman was subsequently convicted of multiple sexual abuse felonies involving all three of the plaintiffs.
USAT and USOC filed demurrers to the plaintiffs’ first amended complaint, arguing that they had failed to state a claim. They also argued against vicarious liability, stating that the plaintiffs had failed to allege facts showing that Gitelman was an agent or employee of either organization. They also argued that they did not have direct knowledge of Gitelman’s conduct and that they could not be directly liable for negligence because they did not owe the plaintiffs a duty of care. The lower court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs filed an appeal of the trial court’s decision.
Issue: Whether the USOC and the USAT had a special relationship with Gitelman and owed the plaintiffs a duty of care?
The USOC and the USAT both argued that they could not be liable for negligence because they did not owe the plaintiffs a duty of care. They argued that they did not have a special relationship with the victims and that the trial court was correct in sustaining their demurrers and dismissing the causes of action against them.
Rule: A duty to control the conduct of another may arise when the defendant has a special relationship with the victim.
In order to prove negligence, plaintiffs must be able to prove that the defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiffs, that the defendants breached their duty of care, that the breach of the duty of care was the proximate or direct cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries, and that the plaintiffs suffered harm as a result of the breach. Defendants generally do not have a duty to control the conduct of another. However, a duty to control the conduct of another might arise when the defendant has a special relationship with the foreseeably dangerous person.
The appeals court examined the relationships that the USAT and the USOC had with Gitelman and with the victims to determine if either organization had special relationships with Gitelman and a duty to control his actions or with the plaintiffs and a duty to warn them. When plaintiffs argue that a defendant owed a duty to protect them, they must show that an exception to the general rule of no duty applies and that its imposition is supported by the law.
The court looked at the California Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of University of California v. Superior Court, 4 Cal. 5th 607 (2018). In that case, the California Supreme Court looked at what constitutes a special relationship and found that there is some degree of dependency through which a party relies on the other for protection and the other party has a superior ability to exercise control of the protection.
The court then looked at several cases in which organizations had been found to have special relationships with minors who participated in sports through the organizations. When it examined USAT, it found that it had a special relationship with the plaintiffs and owed them a duty to protect them. The USAT certified Gitelman and had prior knowledge that sexual abuse by coaches was foreseeable harm. The court also found that the USAT had known that coaches sometimes sexually abuse taekwondo athletes as early as 1992 but failed to adopt and enforce policies to prevent sexual abuse until 2013.
When the court looked at USOC, it did not find that the organization had a special relationship with Gitelman and a duty to control his conduct. The court also found that USOC did not have a special relationship with the plaintiffs or a duty to protect them. While USOC certified USAT, it was one of 49 governing bodies that were certified by USOC. The court found USOC’s relationship with Gitelman and with the plaintiffs was too attenuated for a special relationship to exist.
The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the causes of action against USOC. It reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the negligence cause of action against USAT and returned the case for further proceedings.
Talk to the experienced attorneys at Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers
Sexual abuse by coaches and others in positions of authority can cause lasting harm to their victims. If you were the victim of sexual assault or abuse by a coach, teacher, pastor, or another person in a position of authority, you may have valid grounds to file a lawsuit. Contact the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers by calling 866-966-5240 to schedule a consultation.