Dozens of lawyers who have filed lawsuits on behalf of more than 200 women alleging that a former campus gynecologist at the University of Southern California sexually abused them are pursuing cases on separate tracks, with the first court hearings set for next month.
So far, nearly 50 lawsuits have been filed against USC and Dr. George Tyndall, the campus gynecologist for more than two decades. The plaintiffs, most of whom sued anonymously, claim Tyndall made inappropriate remarks and performed unnecessary procedures on female students.
Most of the women filed individual lawsuits in Los Angeles Superior Court, where Judge Elihu Berle has ordered an initial hearing on Aug. 7. Berle is “extremely experienced” in presiding over sexual abuse cases, said John Manly, of Manly Stewart & Finaldi in Irvine, California, who has filed several of the USC cases, one of which the judge designated as the lead case in state court. Berle oversaw a sexual abuse case that Manly’s firm handled against a former Los Angeles-area high school wrestling coach. That case settled in May for $31 million.
“He’s very detail-oriented, he’s very organized, he expects the lawyers to communicate and work together on all administrative issues,” Manly said. “Sometimes, lawyers don’t get along, but I would hope we’re not going to have that issue. I kind of doubt it. I can tell you Berle has a very low tolerance for that kind of nonsense. He expects lawyers to get along.”
So far, lawyers said, they are not talking to each other—at least not yet. Four class actions purportedly filed on behalf of all the victims in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California were consolidated before U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson, who has scheduled an initial hearing for Aug. 13.
Lawyers who brought those cases have asked Wilson to appoint Seattle’s Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro to head an executive committee—partners Steve Berman and Elizabeth Fegan, specifically—that also would include Daniel Girard and Elizabeth Kramer of Girard Gibbs in Oakland, California, and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein’s Annika Martin in San Francisco. Lieff Cabraser also has teamed up with Sauder Schelkopf in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.
“We’re waiting to see if Judge Wilson will approve the structure we’re proposing to lead the federal cases,” Berman said. “And if we’re approved, we feel we have the authority to approach the state court lawyers and hopefully they’ll organize and then we can discuss joint discovery efforts.”
USC, whose board of trustees is another defendant in many of the suits, has retained Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. USC said in a statement: “We will be seeking a prompt and fair resolution that is respectful of our former students.”
But plaintiffs lawyers are divided over how best to represent the USC victims. Sexual abuse cases historically have been individual cases, since victims often have varying injuries and facts. But with the #MeToo movement and heightened awareness of sexual assault and harassment, some lawyers have found opportunities to file class actions. Hagens Berman, for instance, has brought a class action against movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
“You can try certain issues as a class so that women don’t have to keep coming into court and re-proving the modus operandi and how long this took place, and who knew what and when from the USC side,” Berman said. “Plus, if a class is certified and you send notice out to all the people who this doctor saw, it’s more likely to generate inclusion and more people coming forward than if they just rely on individual cases.”
He cited the Johns Hopkins case, in which the hospital paid $190 million in 2014 to settle a class action involving a gynecologist who secretly photographed patients. The settlement resolved claims of nearly 9,000 women.
Berman estimated that Tyndall saw more than 10,000 women during his career. He predicted a settlement could end up costing USC nearly $300 million—but much depends on what lawyers find in discovery.
In the Hopkins case, he said, the lawyers had a forensic psychologist interview the women to determine their damages calculation. He suggested a similar “grid” could be used in the USC case, ranking allegations by their severity and victim impact. On the lower end could be allegations of inappropriate comments. On the higher end could be allegations of penetration by the doctor with his fingers.
But lawyers in state court insist that sexual abuse cases should be filed individually (though many of the cases involve multiple plaintiffs). The largest was a case filed this week on behalf of 45 women. Andy Rubenstein of D. Miller & Associates in Houston brought that case, along with individual suits on behalf of six more women.
“The reason we chose to proceed the way we did with 45 Jane Doe plaintiffs and six named plaintiffs was because each client has an individual case,” he said. “Their damages, while there are similarities, are distinctly different and affected each of them in a different way.”
But he hoped lawyers would find common ground.
“I would hope that everybody would be talking, and I would hope the other lawyers have spoken to their clients and that everybody feels strongly about what a settlement needs to look like,” Rubenstein said.