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California Supreme Court upholds ruling in USOPC athlete safety case

The California Supreme Court Thursday ruled that a lower court was correct in ruling that the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee did not have a legal responsibility to protect athletes.

The court also said the 2nd District court was correct that national governing bodies could be held liable in sexual abuse cases.

The Supreme Court ruling could have major ramifications for NGBs in California where a recent law opens a new window of statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases.

The Supreme Court ruling was the latest chapter in lawsuit filed by three former Olympic taewondo hopefuls who allege they were sexually abused by coach Marc Gitelman over a seven-year period and that the abuse was enabled by the USOPC and USA Taekwondo, the sport’s national governing body.


While the appellate court found that the USOPC did not have a duty to protect athletes, it did write that USA Taekwondo could be held liable for Gitelman’s sexual abuse of the three athletes. The ruling against USA Taekwondo was not appealed.

“This was a concerted effort by (USA Taekwondo) to wipe out the rights of survivors who were sexually abused and that effort failed in the California Supreme Court,” said attorney John Manly, who represents more than 100 women who allege they were sexually abused by USA Gymnastics coaches and doctors. The ruling, he added, “sends a message to perpetrators in California: if you’re going to (sexaully abuse athletes) don’t come to California because the Supreme Court just ruled that survivors do have the right to hold you accountable.”

“We have mixed emotions,” said attorney Bob Allard, who has handled a number of high profile sexual abuse cases involving Olympic athletes.

“On the one side, we are pleased that the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court ruling that National Governing Bodies have unique responsibilities, legally called a ‘special relationship’, to protect their minor members from predator coaches. Therefore, they can no longer ‘turn a blind eye’ and blame small clubs which are in most instances underinsured, underfunded and mostly run by volunteer parents. On the other hand, we are disappointed that the Court refused to, as it states, ‘take that step’ and implicate the United States Olympic Committee. We were hoping that the Court would recognize that the USOC, as it has represented to Congress, very much has control over the affairs of its individual NGB’s to the point where, as with USA Gymnastics, it has the power to decertify. The Court apparently was not persuaded that these facts also gave rise to a ‘special relationship.’  Regardless, especially minor athletes in the Olympic movement are far better protected now than they were in the past because NGB’s, now facing significant legal exposure if they fail to do the right thing, will be highly motivated to strengthen its child protection systems.”

The NCAA in September filed a brief in support of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in a potential landmark California Supreme Court case, asking the court to rule that the USOPC does not have a legal duty to protect athletes from sexual abuse and harassment.

The NCAA acknowledges in the filing that a Supreme Court ruling that the USOPC has legal obligation to protect athletes could also create major ramifications for the NCAA as well.“This Court should hold that the USOC did not owe a duty to Plaintiffs” to protect them from sexual abuse and harassment, NCAA  attorneys write in the brief.

The NCAA argument to the State Supreme Court echoes a similar filing by the organization with U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California earlier this year in which the NCAA said it has no legal obligation to protect student-athletes against sexual abuse and harassment.

In the U.S. District Court case, three former University of Texas track athletes allege they were sexually abused and harassed by their coach, John Rembao, long considered one of the world’s top high jump coaches. The three athletes, Olympian Erin Aldrich, Jessica Johnson and Londa Bevins, also allege the NCAA helped create a national sexual abuse epidemic by choosing not to implement rules or impose sanctions that would require member schools to take steps to prevent and report abuse by coaches and deter perpetrators.

While acknowledging that sexual abuse is a major problem on the campuses of its member institutions, NCAA attorneys argue in the Rembao case that the organization does not “owe” student athletes a legal duty to protect them.

“This case presents the following issue: What is the appropriate test that minor plaintiffs must satisfy to establish a duty by defendants to protect them from sexual abuse by third parties?” according to the case summary with the Supreme Court.

Gitelman was sentenced to four years in jail in 2015 after he was convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse and lewd actions upon a child, and oral copulation of a minor.

Source: Orange County Register

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