USA Swimming Scandal: Former Swimmers File Suit Claiming USA Swimming Ignored Coaches’ Sex Abuse

Jul 24, 2020

USA Swimming lawsuit.A series of recent high-profile lawsuits in California assert a decades-long pattern of child sex abuse by USA Swimming coaches. Specifically, these lawsuits, which were filed by six women who participated in USA Swimming programs during the 1980s and 90s, claim that USA Swimming was aware of the pattern of abuse by its coaches but intentionally turned a blind eye to the misconduct. Today, we provide an overview of these lawsuits and the allegations of predatory conduct by several different USA Swimming coaches. Additionally, we will analyze the women’s claims and discuss what to expect from these cases as they move through the California court system.

Six Women Sue USA Swimming in California

Six former swimmers – all currently in their 40s and 50s – have sued USA Swimming alleging an organization-wide practice of ignoring child sex abuse by their coaches. The plaintiffs filed these three separate complaints in late May and early June, listing USA Swimming, its various west coast subsidiaries, and two individual coaches as the defendants. The first complaint was filed by Tracy Palmero in Orange County, California, and the other two complaints were filed by Suzette Moran and Debra Grodensky in Alameda County. All three complaints also assert the same two counts of action: (1) sexual assault of a minor; and (2) negligence.

In the first case, Tracy Palmero alleges that former coach and U.S. national team director Everett Uchiyama “groomed [her] for sexual abuse” starting at age 14 and began sexually abusing her at 16. By the time she was 17, Palmero claims that Uchiyama “was engaged in a full-blown sexual relationship with her.” She labels sex abuse as a “chronic problem” within the organization, highlighting that Uchiyama had another alleged sexual relationship with a swimmer in 1999 that was disregarded by USA Swimming. Finally, in 2006, USA Swimming banned Uchiyama after Palmero informed executive director Chuck Wielgus of Uchiyama’s predatory behavior. However, shortly thereafter, USA Swimming “highly recommended” Uchiyama for a job at a local country club while also failing to report Palmero’s sexual abuse allegations to law enforcement.

The second lawsuit follows a similarly frightening pattern, with Suzette Moran claiming that former U.S. Olympic and national team coach Mitchell Ivey “groomed” her for sexual abuse and subsequently began abusing her at age 16. However, Ivey’s pattern of abuse appears to have gotten even more serious, as Moran was impregnated by Ivey at 17 and even was engaged to marry him before ending the engagement due to Ivey’s sexual relationship with another young swimmer. Despite Ivey’s apparent pattern of frequent sexual abuse of minor swimmers (which included an ESPN feature on Ivey’s sexual misconduct in 1993), USA Swimming did not ban him from the sport until November 2013.

Finally, the third case was filed by Debra Grodensky, as well as three other former swimmers: Caren McKay, Katie Kelly, and an anonymous plaintiff going by “G.D.” Collectively, these women claim that former coach Andrew King engaged in a damaging pattern of sexual abuse throughout the 1980s. According to the plaintiffs, King sexually abused at least 10 young swimmers, impregnated one underage girl, and even asked Grodensky to marry him on her 16th birthday, causing her to quit swimming for a period of time. Despite Katie Kelly’s written complaint regarding King’s rampant sexual abuse in 2003, USA Swimming allegedly ignored the abuse and allowed King to continue coaching. In 2009, King was arrested and sentenced to 40 years in prison for assaulting an underage swimmer.

What to Expect Moving Forward

First of all, it is important to note that, despite the plaintiffs’ abuse occurring in the 1980s and 90s, statute of limitations will likely not be a valid defense to these claims thanks to a new California law. Specifically, California recently enacted Assembly Bill 218, which created a three-year “lookback window” allowing adult survivors of child sex abuse to file suit regardless of their current age. The bill also extended the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases and created additional penalties for organizations found to have covered up such conduct. This new bill opened the door to the revival of claims such as those of the plaintiffs in these cases, and according to their attorneys, more child sex abuse cases will be filed against USA Swimming during the bill’s lookback window.

In terms of the plaintiffs’ substantive allegations, the defendants are likely to counter with an affirmative defense arguing that USA Swimming and its subsidiaries adequately investigated the abuse allegations. However, while it does appear that USA Swimming investigated all three former coaches at issue in some capacity, their bans from the sport were issued years after the alleged conduct. The organization may also contend that they were unaware of the abuse, but given the allegations in the plaintiffs complaints, USA Swimming knew – or at least should have known – about all three coaches’ predatory behavior. Moreover, given the widespread and well-known nature of the sexual abuse allegedly performed by Uchiyama, Ivey, and King, USA Swimming would likely struggle to challenge the plaintiffs’ allegations on a factual basis.

Finally, in assessing the long-term outlook for these cases, it is helpful to look at similar claims made in recent years. Interestingly, USA Swimming actually settled a similar child sex abuse case brought by the same firm representing these plaintiffs in March 2020. Here, the parties litigated for two years before agreeing to settle for an undisclosed amount. Many will also recall the horrendous pattern of sexual abuse performed by USA Gymnastics (“USAG”) national team doctor Larry Nassar and other USAG staff members. For its role in the scandal, Michigan State University agreed to a $500 million settlement with Nassar’s victims in 2018. Additionally, more than four years after this scandal broke, USAG is still negotiating its direct settlement with the sexual abuse victims. Most recently, several high-profile gymnasts blasted USAG’s $215 million settlement offer, pointing out that it provided less than half of the damages awarded in the proceedings against Michigan State.

While the USAG scandal is more extensive than these USA Swimming cases, the comparison nonetheless shows that this scandal is likely to last for years and be consistently covered in high-profile media stories. Additionally, the FBI and Department of Justice are also reported to be investigating USA Swimming and its handling of these child sex abuse allegations. The hope is that this media and governmental attention on these cases can help reveal the truth about USA Swimming and grant these victims the relief that they deserve.

About Coffman Law Offices, P.C.

Coffman Law is committed to providing superb legal representation for people who are suffering from severe personal injuries or are dealing with the loss of a loved one due to negligence or misconduct. Coffman Law is a small, results-driven firm focused on ensuring that clients receive the compassion, attention, and consideration that they need to seek adequate redress for injuries or loss. The firm is led by Owner and Founding Partner Brian Coffman, who has dedicated his career to helping accident victims navigate the legal system and obtain redress for their injuries. If you have been injured or lost a loved one, contact Coffman Law today for a free consultation.