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UCLA to pay $243 million to settle gynecologist sex abuse case

Disgraced gynecologist James Heaps stands accused of abusing hundreds of women over three decades at UCLA.

(CN) — The University of California announced Tuesday it has reached a settlement with more than 200 plaintiffs suing the university in Los Angeles Superior Court on claims of sex abuse by former UCLA gynecologist, Dr. James Heaps.

The agreement, reached through a private mediator, will see the public university system pay $243.6 million to 203 victims.

"This settlement is historic," said plaintiff's attorney John Manly in an interview. "It’s the result of not just lawyering, it’s the results of our clients' stories and the power of their stories. And the fact that the highest paid physician in the UC system was molesting his patients."

Heaps worked for the University of California, Los Angeles, in various capacities for 35 years between 1983 and 2018. He served on the UCLA Medical Center faculty for 29 of those years. The most recently settled suit accused Heaps of "groping and fondling his patients’ breasts, under the guise of conducting 'breast examinations;' digitally penetrating his patients’ vaginas in a sexual manner, under the guise of conducting 'pelvic examinations;' and sexually stimulating his patients by rubbing and caressing the exterior of his patients’ genitalia, including his patients’ clitorises."

The suit also accused the governing body of the UC system, the regents, of protecting Heaps "from being exposed as a sexual predator because the regents profited to the tune of millions of dollars from this gross misconduct."

Prosecutors indicted Heaps, 65, in 2021 on 21 counts of sexual abuse related to seven victims. He pleaded not guilty, and is currently awaiting trial.

In a statement, a UCLA spokesperson praised the plaintiffs for telling their stories. “The conduct alleged to have been committed by Heaps is reprehensible and contrary to the university’s values," the spokesperson said Tuesday. "We admire the courage of the plaintiffs in coming forward and appreciate plaintiffs’ counsel’s commitment to resolving the claims."

Manly praised the university's handling of the case — both its decision to conduct an independent investigation, which found the school itself at fault, and its willingness to negotiate a settlement which spared many of his clients the pain of being deposed.

"Only a few of our clients were deposed," he said. "That’s a significant part of the win. They didn’t have to go through that trauma. This should serve as a model for other universities who are facing the same sort of claims.”

Manly has also represented plaintiffs suing the University of Southern California and George Tyndall, who is similarly accused of molesting hundreds of patients; he also represented victims of Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of girls and young women while working as a doctor for the U.S. women's gymnastics team and the University of Michigan.

"Academic medicine really needs to take a close look at itself and examine why this is happening," said Manly. "Institutions seem to care more about their brand and their reputation than their patients’ safety." He added: "Frequently, at these institutions, there’s nobody in charge. They handle these cases badly. It seems the go-to plan is to cover it up. I think there has to be severe consequences for the perpetrator and for those who help keep the crimes a secret."

The settlement will need to be approved by judge before it is finalized. Money from the settlement will go into a fund, and be divided up by one or two retired judges, according to Manly. Some survivors will get more than others, depending on the severity of the abuse they suffered.

Numerous other lawsuits have been filed against Heaps and the University of California. One class action suit filed by some 6,000 former patients of Heaps was settled last year for $73 million, an amount Manly called "woefully inadequate." Other complaints, filed by hundreds of plaintiffs, remain pending.

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