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The Top 10 Famous Sex Abuse Cases Turned Civil Cases

Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far back to rack up some of the most famous sex abuse turned civil cases in history. It seems that over the past decade or so we’ve seen several high-profile cases that rocked the world.

Many of the cases shattered public images deeply held for decades. Prominent figures who held themselves out as public role models were, behind closed doors, quite the opposite. 

Why did it take so long for the cases to break? How were these people able to continue patterns of sexual harassment and abuse for years and years without penalty?

The world is a funny place. There are power structures, real and perceived, that keep people quiet. As a result, famous and influential people reach a point where they feel invincible. Combine that with the fact that many wealthy people lose social inhibitions, and harassers and abusers think they can get away with anything. 

For a long time, it has worked. Thankfully, in these cases, powerful people were brought to justice. Not only did they face criminal penalties for their sexual abuses, but they also paid millions of dollars in settlements to victims. And even more importantly, the institutions that allowed them to prosper and commit these atrocities are finding themselves responsible.

Though money doesn’t repair the trauma of sexual assault, it eases the pain of paying for medical and psychological care, lost income, and other impacts of sexual predation. For many survivors, they have lost their position and may have no opportunity to work or advance. They may be psychologically devastated and suffer from PTSD.

Right now, we’re in the middle of another high-profile sex-trafficking case. Hopefully, justice is served. For now, though, let’s take a look at 10 of the most famous sexual abuse cases that turned into high-profile civil cases.

1. Roger Ailes, Founder of Fox News 

Roger Ailes was a prominent media executive in the United States. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2017 before he could face charges from other victims in person. In the year before he died, however, a former Fox News broadcaster named Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. 

In a settlement, Fox paid Carlson a reported $20 million and issued a rare public apology and a statement praising her tenure at the station. After Carlson reported the harassment, several other women came forward with similar claims. News reports state that Fox settled other harassment and sexual abuse claims without specifying the settlement amounts. It is reported that Fox has paid out millions to other women who were victimized.

2. Harvey Weinstein, American Film Producer

In 2019, the Washington Post reported that Harvey Weinstein reached a settlement agreement with sexual abuse and harassment victims totaling $47 million. Over 30 women claimed Weinstein either sexually harassed them or engaged in other forms of sexual abuse. 

According to the settlement terms, Weinstein did not have to admit to any wrongdoing. Still, the announcement is a significant milestone in a very public affair over several years. 

Harvey Weinstein was convicted in New York in February 2020 for sexual assault and rape and was sentenced to 23 years in prison. He has lost his appeal.  He is now slated to face a trial over charges of rape and sexual assault sometime in 2022 in California. As of right now, he faces four counts of rape and seven counts of other types of sexual assault. He is still facing dozens of civil suits filed by accusers. Weinstein’s abuse became the tipping point for what is now known as the #MeToo movement in America.

3. Jeffrey Epstein, Prominent Hedge Fund Manager

In a bizarre case where it was hard to separate reality from conspiracy, notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein reportedly killed himself in a jail cell while awaiting trial for sexual assault and human trafficking charges. He never had to face his victims in court, but civil cases are still ongoing even after his death. 

In August 2021, The New York Times reported that Epstein’s estate paid more than $121 million to over 135 people. The number of claimants is hard to believe but indicates the scale of Epstein’s operation. The payments come as a surprise considering his estate, valued at over $600 million at his death, is largely placed in trusts. However, legal experts express surprise at how fast the court system is moving to get money to victims. 

Epstein had wrangled a sweetheart deal in a prior sex abuse charge in Florida where he was able to plead guilty to a lesser offense, spend minimal time in jail, and was released daily to his office instead of spending it in a cell.  The entire arrangement was the subject of motions, litigation and scrutiny, which became moot after his suicide. Since Epstein’s death, his former girlfriend and colleague, Ghislaine Maxwell, has been arrested and convicted for her part in the trafficking.

4. Bill Cosby, Comedian/Celebrity

When several women came forward claiming Bill Cosby, the world-famous comedian and actor, raped them or otherwise sexually assaulted them, the world was in shock. For years Cosby gave speeches on the importance of family values and presented himself as a father figure to America’s youth. In addition, he publicly derided other comics’ use of profanity in their shows and stressed other moral behavior. 

Cosby served prison time after a conviction but was released in the summer of 2021 after an appeals court overturned the his conviction. Several women filed civil lawsuits against Cosby, but so far, media reports indicate he is not engaging in any sort of settlement negotiations with any of the alleged victims.  The conviction came about because in a deposition in a civil case which he settled, he made damaging admissions.  His lawyers had struck a deal that the deposition would not be used against him in a criminal case.  Later, a district attorney decided that this was not binding and prosecuted him.

5. Jerry Sandusky, Former Penn State University Assistant Coach

The world was shocked when the news of Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of students and athletes broke. In 2013, the university announced that it reached settlement agreements with 26 of his victims. Reports of his sexual abuse first came to light in 2011 and outlined a consistent pattern of child abuse and his using his position to gain leverage over his victims.

All told, the university agreed to pay a total of $59.7 million to the victims. On top of the civil cases, the NCAA fined Penn State $60 million and issued a four-year ban on bowl games for its football program. Renowned coach Joe Paterno resigned and passed away shortly thereafter. It was reported that Paterno had been briefed on the allegations but did not take action.

6. Larry Nassar, Michigan State University 

Dr. Nassar was, at one time, one of the country’s most prominent doctors when it came to young female gymnasts. Olympians, college athletes, and young Olympic hopefuls saw him for treatment over several years. Once claims of sexual abuse started to appear, however, scores of Nassar’s victims came forward. As of now, there are more than 300 reported victims. 

In the wake of the allegations, Michigan State University agreed to pay a $500 million settlement with more than 300 victims. The settlement is one of the largest in U.S. history. In response to the case, U.S. Gymnastics made drastic changes to their policies regarding suspicions of sexual abuse and reporting procedures. Nassar is serving a life sentence for his sexual abuses.

7. Dr. George Tynall, University of Southern California

George Tyndall was a gynecologist at USC. According to reports, Tyndall sexually assaulted his patients over the course of years. Patients and other staff complained about what they said was inappropriate behavior, but the university failed to take appropriate action to stop what was happening. Eventually, a group of students filed lawsuits against Tyndall, claiming sexual assault. They also filed lawsuits against USC for negligence. In response, USC settled with victims for $215 million.

8. The Catholic Church

For years, it seemed like new reports of sexual abuse by authorities in the Catholic Church came every month. There have been many lawsuits since sex abuse was first brought forward in 1985. Then, a priest in Louisiana pleaded guilty to 11 counts of molestation of boys. As more people came forward, it became clear the church and many of its authorities were involved in a massive coverup to limit reputation damage to the church. 

Many of the cases had to go to trial because the Church would not voluntarily settle.  The Catholic Church, it turned out, had secret file son many priests who were abusing children and simply shuffled them to new parishes when complaints were made.  The Catholic church is believed to have paid over $3 billion in settlements to victims and their families as of 2012. The number is likely even higher today. 

9. R. Kelly, Singer

The singer R. Kelly, was found guilty in 2021 on all counts he faced over charges involving sex-trafficking. For decades, sexual assault claims trailed the singer, and the guilt verdict came after several witnesses came forward accusing him. The singer has been in custody for most of the time since he was charged formally in 2019. Though there will likely be many more civil suits against the singer seeking damages, one accuser said she was paid $200,000 as a settlement after she was diagnosed with an STD.

10. Mike Tyson, Boxer

At one time, Mike Tyson was the heavyweight champion and the most famous boxer in the world. However, at the peak of his boxing career, Tyson face allegations of sexual assault from multiple women. Tyson served time in prison after he was convicted for rape. Four years after his conviction, his accuser Desiree Washington filed a civil suit in 1992 seeking unspecified damages, though there is no public information over whether she received any payment. 

In February, 2000, Sherry Cole and Chevelle Butts filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court seeking $7.5 million in damages. According to their suit, the women were in a Georgetown restaurant when Tyson approached them. He allegedly grabbed Sherry Cole and propositioned her for sex. The two women and Tyson eventually settled for a confidential amount. 

The Importance of Hiring a Qualified Sex Abuse Lawyer

As you can see from the list, sexual abuse and harassment happen in high places. The sad thing is, there is likely much more going on than we know about because victims are afraid to come forward. 

Likewise, likely similar crimes are happening on a smaller scale across the country that fails to garner appropriate attention because they don’t involve a famous celebrity or university. 

Victims of sexual abuse often feel alone and without allies. Finding a lawyer who will fight for victims’ rights and hold powerful people and other abuses accountable is what victims need to win justice. 

Sex abuse civil cases often involve large amounts of money. The cases we’ve outlined involved millions of dollars in damages paid to victims. 

A lawyer with experience trying and settling sexual abuse cases will know how much your case is worth and what constitutes a fair settlement. 

Leighton Law Supports Sex Abuse Victims

The team at Leighton Law is the leading regional law firm when it comes to sexual abuse and sexual harassment cases. We represent victims and have a proven track record of winning substantial settlements for families involved in these horrible cases.  John Leighton is the immediate past President of the National Crime Victim Bar Association and the author of the two-volume textbook on handling these kinds of cases. Both Mr. Leighton and Mr. Panoff teach lawyers around the country about techniques for representing sexual assault and abuse survivors as well as trial skills in prosecuting these cases. Our approach is victim-centered so as to minimize any additional trauma to survivors of abuse and assault.

Talk to us in a free, no-obligation consultation to discuss the details of your case and how we can hold your abusers responsible. 

Article by:

John Leighton

A nationally-recognized trial lawyer who handles catastrophic injury and death cases. He manages Leighton Law, P.A. trial lawyers, with offices in Miami and Orlando, Florida. He is President of The National Crime Victim Bar Association, author of the 2-volume textbook,Litigating Premises Security Cases, and past Chairman of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s Motor Vehicle, Highway & Premises Liability Section. Having won some of the largest verdicts in Florida history, Mr. Leighton is listed inThe Best Lawyers in America (14 years), “Top Lawyers” in the South Florida Legal Guide (15 years), Top 100 Florida SuperLawyer™ and Florida SuperLawyers (14 years), “Orlando Legal Elite” by Orlando Style magazine, and FloridaTrend magazine “Florida Legal Elite

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