Hundreds of current and former University of Southern California students reached a proposed $240 million settlement Friday in a class-action lawsuit against the school and its former gynecologist, who has been accused of sexual abuse continuing for decades.
The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleges that George Tyndall, a gynecologist at the student health center for decades, subjected his patients to unnecessary penetration with his hands and other inappropriate touching, as well as sexual harassment that included lewd comments and photography.
The university knew of Tyndall’s behavior since at least the 1990s, according to the complaint.
Tyndall has thousands of former patients; officials estimate the class could be as many as 14,000 to 17,000 women, according to Tara Lee, an attorney representing the school.
“Many of the hundreds of women who have stepped forward to speak up about what happened to them at USC felt powerless against the university and Dr. Tyndall,” Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman and attorney representing the class of USC graduates, said in a statement. “ . . . We are pleased that this proposed settlement will bring meaningful recovery to this class of women, without intensive litigation and discovery directed at the victims, and provides a relatively simple process to have their cases evaluated.”
The agreement in principle would pay a minimum of $2,500 and up to $250,000 to former patients, for a total of $215 million. The proposed settlement includes an additional up to $25 million in fees, Lee said.
It was structured with different tiers to give flexibility to the women, Lee said. Some may choose just to provide evidence that they are former patients, and would be eligible for a $2,500 payment. A court-appointed special master will evaluate more complex claims eligible for larger payments.
“USC got out cheap — a jury would have absolutely crushed them,” said Michael Barasch, a lawyer who has handled more than 300 sexual abuse cases. He said he is pleased that the women would not have to testify in front of a jury but that he thinks they should be eligible for larger payments than $2,500 without having to relive the experience.
The proposed agreement does not include the hundreds of claims filed in state court — including 93 additional cases filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court. Those women could choose to join the federal class action or continue with their claims in state court.
“Over the course of this lawsuit,” said Meggie Kwait, a 31-year-old teacher in New York who is a member of the class of graduates, “I heard the stories of hundreds of other USC students and alumnae who experienced violation, humiliation and abuse. We were trapped in a system that robbed us of our safety, our dignity and even our voices — in the very place that should have been teaching us to stand and speak our truth.” The settlement, she said, gives her strength, and a voice.
“A fair and respectful resolution for as many former patients as possible has been a priority for the university and for me personally since I began serving in the role of interim president,” Wanda Austin told the campus in announcing the agreement in principle. “Many sweeping changes have been made, and we continue to work every day to prevent all forms of misconduct on our campuses, to provide outstanding care to all students, and to ensure we have policies and procedures that prioritize respect for our students and our entire university community.”
In an interview Friday afternoon, she said some of the changes include a new office of professionalism and ethics so that people with concerns about anything at the university can contact one person, rather than trying to figure out the appropriate channels. They changed the oversight of the student health center and hired two new female gynecologists.
“We really feel this is the first step toward healing and moving forward,” she said.
Rick Caruso, the chairman of the board of trustees, told the campus in a letter that trustees had promised to change the culture at the university, putting the safety of students and patients as the top priority. He said the investigation into the student health center was nearing completion.
Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, is a member of the USC board.
The Los Angeles Times first reported the allegations about Tyndall, and his denial of inappropriate behavior with patients.
The settlement won’t be paid with tuition or donor dollars, Austin said, but from reserves “and discussions with insurers.”
USC is not the only school facing massive legal expenses because of sexual misconduct claims. In May, Michigan State University agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits filed by more than 300 alleged victims of disgraced former sports physician Larry Nassar, who was accused of sexual abuse of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment.
Pennsylvania State University has paid more than $100 million to settle claims by people who accused assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky of sexual abuse.