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Legislators say they'll try to pass bills for Anderson survivors next year

Dr. Robert E. Anderson in 1973.
UM Bentley Historical Library

Two bills seeking to help hundreds of people who say they were sexually assaulted by a University of Michigan sports doctor will be reintroduced in January, the bills’ sponsors announced Friday.

The proposed legislation would make it easier for victims of the now-deceased Dr. Robert Anderson to successfully sue the University of Michigan, which employed him from the mid-1960’s through 2003. Allegations that Anderson sexually assaulted scores of students (most of them male) and community members, under the guise of medical treatment, date back decades.

In September, legislators introduced a package of bills: the first would essentially give Anderson’s victims a year, from the point the bill becomes law, to retroactively file a claim, regardless of the statute of limitations. The second would revoke the legal immunity given to public officials, including public universities, in cases where sexual assault occurs under the guise of a medical exam, and where officials knew or should have known about it. 

It’s a tailor-made package designed with a specific case in mind, and inspired by similar bills passed during the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal.

“All of this is to make it more difficult for university legal teams to attempt to dismiss survivors' lawsuits by saying ‘[T]hey should have known it was abuse at the time’-- something that occurred during the MSU/Nassar defense,” said John Sellek of Harbor Public Affairs, which arranged the press conference, in an email Friday.

But the bills never even came up for a hearing, said state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Wixom), the lead sponsor.  

“Due to other events that have transpired this year - namely, the pandemic and COVID-19 - it really pushed our schedule back in the Legislature,” Berman said. “Not only did we not have the ability to meet and we had to take every proper precaution, it really delayed looking at new bills and really anything that wasn’t COVID-related.”

The current legislative session ends next week, Berman says, but he plans to reintroduce them when the new Legislature is seated in January. 

“These bills will have the next two-year legislative cycle to move through the process. And hopefully it won’t take two years to work on these bills to make them become law,” Berman said. “So this update is mainly to reassure survivors...that these bills are going to be reintroduced.”

"Because it has a retroactive window, when it finally does [pass] it will give those survivors the ability to then go into court and bring their claims because of the retroactive nature. Hopefully it doesn't happen in 5, 10 years from now. But even if they have to wait that long, and it happens then, because of the nature and retroactive ability, then they can go in to court."
The University has said it wants to settle the Anderson claims outside of court.
"Because this is a matter with pending litigation, we have nothing to share at this time," university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in an email Friday. "We also have no further updates regarding the Anderson litigation."

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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