UCLA to pay $243m to settle sexual abuse claims against former doctor

The University of California has agreed to pay $243.6m (£179m) to settle allegations that hundreds of women were sexually abused by a former UCLA gynaecologist.

The settlement covers about 50 cases involving 203 women who said they were groped or otherwise abused by Dr James Heaps over a 35-year career. Each will receive $1.2m, attorneys said. The deal was reached with the assistance of a private mediator after substantial litigation, the parties said.

The lawsuits said University of California, Los Angeles ignored decades of complaints and deliberately concealed abuse.

“The conduct alleged to have been committed by Heaps is reprehensible and contrary to the university’s values,” a UCLA statement said. “We express our gratitude to the brave individuals who came forward, and hope this settlement is one step toward providing healing and closure for the plaintiffs involved.”

Two women who said Heaps abused them spoke at a news conference. “I’ve been waiting 20 years for this day,” said Julie Wallach, who said she was abused by Heaps in the late 90s, but when she reported it to UCLA and the state medical board “no one listened”.

“There was no one else to go to. I mean, who do you fight?” she said. “The emotional toll it’s taken over the years has been tremendous.”

Kara Cagle said she was assaulted by Heaps eight years ago at a time when she had been undergoing gruelling treatment for a rare form of breast cancer.

“I could never have imagined that someone would have taken such despicable advantage of me during that time. It was so traumatic that I left in tears,” she said. “My heart breaks for all the women who were not spared.”

UCLA began investigating Heaps in 2017 and he retired the next year after the school declined to renew his contract. Heaps was criminally charged last year with 21 counts of sexual offences involving seven women.

He has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing.

John C Manly, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, called Heaps a sophisticated predator who committed abuse under the guise of normal medical procedures such as pelvis and breast examinations. Many of the people who made accusations of abuse were cancer patients, he said.

“Perpetrators are not the drooling ghoul that the media portrays them to be overtly,“ he said. “They’re nice people, they’re gregarious, they’re polite, they have good reputations, and that’s what these women faced.”

Manly said UCLA regents made the decision to resolve the claims rather than “unnecessarily inflicting further damage upon these survivors” and it should be a model for other universities facing similar claims.

Manly said there were thousands of practising doctors nationwide who had administrative and criminal convictions for molesting their patients and he urged federal lawmakers to take steps to protect the public.

The lawsuits were among hundreds filed that allege abuse by Heaps. UCLA settled a similar lawsuit last year for $73m.

In that case, more than 100 women said that between 1983 and 2018, Heaps groped women, simulated intercourse with an ultrasound probe or made inappropriate comments during examinations at the UCLA student health centre, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center or his on-campus office.

Under that class-action settlement, 6,600 former patients were to receive between $2,500 and $250,000, with the higher amounts involving the extent of bodily injury and emotional distress as decided by a panel of experts.

UCLA did not acknowledge wrongdoing in reaching that settlement but did agree to change its procedures for preventing, identifying, investigating and dealing with sexual misconduct.

The latest lawsuit settlement follows similar massive payouts by universities over allegations that doctors abused thousands of patients, including prestigious schools such as Ohio State, Johns Hopkins and Columbia.


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