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Mediation Talks Begin In Ohio State Abuse Lawsuits

Steven Snyder-Hill, who claims he was abused by former Ohio State team doctor Richard Strauss, is now a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the school.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
Steven Snyder-Hill, who claims he was abused by former Ohio State team doctor Richard Strauss, is now a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the school.

Accusers of doctor Richard Strauss met with Ohio State University attorneys in Cincinnati this weekend to begin mediation over a pair of lawsuits against the school. An independent investigation revealed Richard Strauss abused at least 177 men, and a number of administrators at the time failed to adequately respond.

As court proceedings related to the university's handling of Strauss grind into gear, the school is attempting to respond in a number of different ways. Most publicly, current leaders are apologizing for prior leaders' mistakes.

"On behalf of the university, our profound regret and sincere apologies to the survivors who were affected by Strauss’ abuse and for our institutions failure—and there's no other word for it—to prevent it," university president Michael Drake said at the last Board of Trustees meeting. "The university's inaction at the time was unacceptable."

The school wants to use its experience as a model to help others avoid similar abuse.  

"This issue remains prevalent in our society," Drake said, "and we will use the lessons of the past to play a leadership role in confronting the problem head on."

The Strauss-related lawsuits against Ohio State have entered mediation – but if apologies, a task force and negotiations are the carrot, the university’s lawyers have made no secret of their stick. In an early motion, put on the shelf while mediation moves forward, Ohio State attorneys argued the cases should be dismissed because the abuse falls outside the state's current two-year statute of limitations.

If the two sides can't reach an agreement, that question could come to the fore. Lawyers for the alumni suing the school argue their clients had no idea of the university’s alleged complicity in Strauss' conduct until the abuse became widely known. They contend the clock shouldn't start ticking for statute of limitations purposes until that point. 

Emma Hetherington runs the Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic at the University of Georgia. In her state, lawmakers passed a measure giving survivors of sexual violence a window to bring civil claims outside of the statute of limitations.

A similar measure has been floatedin Ohio, as a direct result of the Strauss allegations.

Hetherington applauds Drake’s task force, which he announcedat the end of May. The task force would include survivors of sexual abuse, along with Ohio State and national experts.

"I love to hear that they want to do a working group in order to sort of be a national model that other people could replicate," she says.

Hetherington also thought mediation could be a good way to reach an agreement the different sides can agree with.

"It’s not just about the system telling them how they will be made whole, but the victim themselves gets to sit at the table and talk through what will potentially make them whole," Hetherington says.

Many high-profile sexual abuse cases in recent memory have resulted in significant cash settlements, and that might be where the Strauss dispute is headed.

But John Culhane, a professor at Widener University's Delaware Law School, says it can be difficult to figure out a number.

"These claims can run to a couple million dollars a victim at the high end, and so you could be talking about hundreds of millions of dollars," Culhane says. "Sometimes it's half a million, sometimes it's up to $2 million. There's a lot of variables to take into account."

Writingabout the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University, Culhane argued a victim compensation fund could offer a good model for distributing the money from a settlement.

"For one thing they stand a better chance of retaining the anonymity of the people who come forward," he says. "And for another thing, if you've got large groups of people that have been affected by the conduct in question, you stand a better chance of getting a uniform or at least a consistent resolution."

He points to a compensation fund established for victims of childhood sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a Delaware doctor. The model has been used for other settlements, too, like victims and first responders from September 11 and claimants after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.