UCLA settles gynaecologist sex abuse suit for $246m

Litigation settlement offers 203 women a measure of accountability and compensation after decades of concealed abuse.

UCLA gynecologist James Heaps in suit and tie appears in Los Angeles Superior Court.
UCLA gynecologist James Heaps appears in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2019 [File: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via AP]

The University of California has agreed to pay $246.3m to settle allegations that hundreds of women were sexually abused by a former University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) gynaecologist, lawyers and the university announced Tuesday.

The settlement was reached with the assistance of a private mediator after substantial litigation, the parties said in a statement.

Initial news of the settlement that did not include the specific amount had been announced Monday by some of the lawyers representing 203 women who said they were groped or otherwise abused by Dr James Heaps across a 35-year career.

“The conduct alleged to have been committed by Heaps is reprehensible and contrary to the University’s values,” a UCLA statement said. “Our first and highest obligation will always be to the communities we serve, and we hope this settlement is one step toward providing healing and closure for the plaintiffs involved.”

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’ lawyers, said University of California system 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.

“This historic settlement allows these brave women to achieve their litigation goals of accountability and compensation, paving the path for their continued healing,” Manly said in a statement.

The lawsuit was one of 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 the class-action settlement, some 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.

Former UCLA gynecologist Dr. James Heaps, center, with his wife Deborah, left, and defense attorney Tracy Green leave Los Angeles Superior Court.
Former UCLA gynaecologist Dr James Heaps, centre, with his wife Deborah, left, and defence lawyer Tracy Green leave Los Angeles Superior Court, in 2019 [File: Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo]

The latest lawsuit settlement follows similar massive pay-outs by universities for allegations that doctors abused thousands of patients.

Last month, the University of Michigan announced a $490m settlement with more than 1,000 people who say they were sexually assaulted by a sports doctor, Dr Robert Anderson, during his nearly four-decade career at the school. He died in 2008.

Last March, UCLA’s cross-town rival, the University of Southern California, agreed to an $852m settlement with more than 700 women who accused its longtime campus gynaecologist, Dr George Tyndall, of sexual abuse. The university reached a $215m settlement in a separate suit.

Tyndall, who worked at the school for nearly 30 years, has pleaded not guilty to dozens of sexual misconduct criminal counts.

The USC settlements far surpassed one announced in 2018 by Michigan State University. That $500m agreement — considered the largest of its kind at that time — settled claims from more than 300 women and girls who said they were assaulted by Larry Nassar, who was a campus sports doctor and a doctor for USA Gymnastics. He was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault and a separate 60-year conviction for child pornography offences.

Source: AP