Judge Warns Witness Intimidation in Florida Sexual Abuse Lawsuit May Be Gross Negligence

A national sports league has been accused in a Florida sexual abuse lawsuit of trying to intimidate potential witnesses into silence – an action the judge warned could be interpreted by a jury as gross negligence. Such a finding would be noteworthy because in Florida civil sexual abuse cases, evidence of gross negligence opens the door to punitive damages. That could possibly triple the amount of damages the defendant would have to pay.

Gross negligence is defined in F.S. 768.72 as conduct so reckless or wanting in care that it constitutes a disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to it.Florida sexual abuse lawsuit by former tennis player

The United States Tennis Association, which is being sued by a young player (K.M.) alleging she was sexually assaulted by a coach while training at the USTA’s Orlando headquarters, is trying to suppress damaging testimony of another player.

In her sexual abuse lawsuit against USTA, plaintiff K.M. says the tennis organization negligently failed to protect her from an allegedly predatory coach (age 34) while she was training with him away from home as a vulnerable 19-year-old. She’d been with the organization since she was 12. She tried to quit several years in, in part citing harsh treatment from prior coaches. But the USTA reportedly convinced her to stay and specifically paired her with the coach in question.

The player whose testimony the USTA is now trying to shut down is Pam Shriver, a well-known 21-time Grand Slam doubles champ and popular sports commentator. She’s also survivor of sexual abuse who has been vocal about her experiences being preyed upon by adults in the sport as a minor.

Tennis League Lawyer Accused of Trying to Intimidate Witness

Last year, Shriver gave sworn testimony that a USTA lawyer approached her following a league fundraiser. The lawyer told her she should “be careful” — both in talking publicly about her own sexual abuse in tennis as well as any possible interactions with K.M.’s attorney, who is representing several former tennis players in Florida sexual abuse lawsuits. The USTA lawyer reportedly told Shriver the plaintiff’s attorney was “not a nice person” and that she should “not say too much.” This conversation reportedly took place shortly after Shriver and K.M. met and discussed their shared trauma..

K.M.’s lawyer is now seeking to have Shriver’s testimony heard by a jury as evidence of attempted witness tampering – which the judge wrote could well be interpreted as evidence of gross negligence by the USTA. “It certainly looks like an untoward attempt to intimidate her, and may be construed by the jury as being aimed at silencing victims of abuse by coaches,” the judge wrote.

USTA attorneys argue that it is not relevant and should not be admissible in K.M.’s case. Shriver lacks direct knowledge about K.M.’s case, and as a volunteer officer with USTA’s foundation, any communication she had was the organization’s attorney should be classified as privileged.

The judge has already handed the plaintiff several other key pretrial victories following repeated attempts by the defense to suppress evidence or have the case tossed outright.

Prior Defense Motions to Suppress Evidence Rejected

One motion to suppress involved allegations from a former employee who said the same coach accused in K.M.’s case groped her at a dance club in 2015. The former employee’s testimony was considered crucial because it involved something that happened 7 years before K.M. was reportedly assaulted – and the league new about it because the allegation surfaced during an independent investigation. That makes it central in K.M.’s allegations of third-party liability for sexual assault: That the USTA breached a duty of care owed to her by improperly retaining the coach when he should have been filed and failing to supervise his 1:1 time with her when his history of inappropriate behavior was known. The USTA did respond swiftly after K.M. reported the sexual assault – suspending and later firing her coach. However, K.M. and her attorneys say he should never have been allowed to coach her at all – especially unsupervised – in the first place.

The USTA argued this history wasn’t relevant because the accuser was not an athlete, the setting was different, and the only person who could possibly be responsible for what happened to K.M. was her former coach (who denies K.M.’s allegations). The judge disagreed and has decided to allow the jury to consider this evidence, noting the coach’s behavior toward the employee in the nightclub was “not a far cry” from his conduct on an isolated court with K.M.

“The difference in setting and the fact that (the former employee) was not an athlete do not make (the coach’s) prior assault insufficient as a matter of law to serve as notice of a foreseeable risk,” the judge wrote. In other words, the USTA’s knowledge of that incident put the organization on notice that there was a foreseeable risk the coach could behave inappropriately with others — including young athletes with whom he had regular/one-to-one contact.

Another previous ruling against the USTA involved communications between USTA and another sports organization, the USOPC. Both expressed reluctance for years to outright prohibit sexual relationships between players and coaches. In those communications, the organizations lamented such a policy given that numerous player-coach relationships existed within the upper echelons of both organizations. USTA did finally ban all such relationships – but did so a year after K.M.’s assault. Part of K.M.’s allegations are that if USTA had implemented such a policy sooner, it could have potentially been a deterrent for her coach. USTA sought to suppress evidence of its communications about the policy, but the judge denied that request.

Contact an Experienced Florida Sexual Abuse Lawyer

Going up against a powerful person, league, organization, or government agency in a civil sexual abuse case can be intimidating. Hiring an experienced Florida sexual abuse lawyer with both the skills and the resources to successfully pursue your case is an imperative. We offer free initial consultations to help determine whether you have a valid case and if so, how best to pursue it.

Contact the South Florida civil sexual abuse lawsuit attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.

Additional Resources:

U.S. Tennis Association Try to Persuade Judge to Prohibit Key Evidence in Sexual Abuse Lawsuit, March 2, 2024, The Athletic

More Blog Entries:

Filing a Florida Lawsuit for Sexual Assault on a Boat, Feb. 5, 2024, Florida Sexual Abuse Lawyer Blog

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