Case Type: Criminal/Sexual Violence Litigation
Organization: The Waterford School
In August 2020, Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, together with local counsel Ferbrache Law, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tabitha Bell against The Waterford School. Ms. Bell, a former student at the School, alleged that the elite private school refused to implement safeguards to protect Tabitha’s safety at the institution, including ignoring bullying and shunning by other students, tolerating consistent mistreatment by faculty and turning a blind eye to a traumatic rape by a male classmate with a known history of sexual harassment and physical violence. Tabitha has a rare form of muscular dystrophy known as Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) disease, which affects her balance, limits her mobility and affects her general physical functioning.
Despite all this, Ms. Bell persevered at Waterford and graduated in 2018. She is currently finishing her studies at University of California Berkeley, although she has continued to experience emotional distress as a consequence of her traumatic five years at Waterford.
The complaint filed on behalf of Ms. Bell alleged that Waterford was liable for negligence and breach of its duty of care; premises liability; negligent supervision of its faculty and students; invasion of Ms. Bell’s privacy by making a public disclosure of the facts of Ms. Bell’s rape to her entire senior class and much of the faculty; negligent infliction of emotional distress; fraud; violation of the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act and negligent misrepresentation of the school’s ability to safeguard Tabitha’s physical, emotional, and social health and wellbeing.
“Because Waterford does not accept federal funds, which would subject it to the requirements of Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act, it seems to believe it can shirk its responsibilities to its students. However, under Utah state law, common law and the school’s own policies, Waterford must be held accountable for protecting its students,” said Sanford Heisler Sharp Partner Christine Dunn at the time the lawsuit was filed. “The school completely ignored these responsibilities.”
“I came to Waterford wanting the opportunity to get an exceptional liberal arts education in a place where I could thrive despite my physical challenges,” Ms. Bell said when the suit was filed. “Almost from the start I realized that Waterford wanted only to use me as a token disability poster-child, without actually accommodating my physical limitations. Even though my high school years were not what I had hoped for, I am motivated to obtain justice for myself, hold Waterford School accountable for its actions, and improve conditions at Waterford for future disabled students and sexual assault victims.”
In late 2021, the parties reached a settlement that included three important programmatic components. Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the Waterford School: 1) hosted an assembly for upper Lower School classes on the topic of positive relationship building and consent as well as assemblies for the Middle, and Upper School classes on the topic of sexual assault, and informed Middle and Upper School students of school personnel designated as contacts for victims; 2) hosted a mandatory training for all School administrators and employees, including at least one coach from each men’s and women’s Upper and Middle School teams, that discussed both effective support/response to students who have experienced sexual violence and trauma-informed support; and 3) engaged in a policy audit and notified its insurance company of the audit findings.
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