Advice for Working with Sex Abuse Claimants – Sensitivity and Empathy are Key
In recent years, there has been an increase in litigation involving sexual abuse, as evidenced by recent lawsuits involving the Boy Scouts of America, numerous Catholic dioceses, and sports figures such as Larry Nassar. While the increase in cases is abhorrent, the #MeToo movement has helped give survivors a voice against their abusers while the increased focus on litigation has resulted in compensation for those survivors. Handling sexual abuse cases requires special considerations that may not be present in other mass tort cases.
The first part of the case lifecycle, intake, is one of the most important components of the case and is especially true when dealing with sexual abuse survivors, who could shut down the process because of insensitive procedures. Crystal Utley, vice president of Class Action and Mass Tort Solutions, and former sexual abuse trauma nurse, notes that “working with these claimants requires the utmost sensitivity, patience, and empathy.”
Patience is key when working with survivors of sexual abuse. In many cases, the victim has repressed memories or aspects of their assault and asking certain questions may trigger distressing memories. It may take multiple conversations with the survivor to obtain the necessary information. If the survivor is struggling with the questions or the trauma of reliving the memory, do not be afraid to ask if they need more time and set up follow up contact. Allowing survivors time to become comfortable with the process will result in better, more complete information than rushing through a standard intake call.
In addition to patience, the ultimate level of sensitivity is required in the approach to the questions. While the goal is to collect details, more open-ended questions such as ‘tell me the specifics of your experience’ can provide a gentle approach to difficult questions. When speaking to a survivor, the act of revisiting their experiences and verbalizing private information can be a traumatic process that often comes with shame and guilt that is hard to overcome. Recognizing these feelings and remaining sensitive in your approach can make a world of difference to a survivor.
Finally, treat the survivors you are speaking to with empathy. Remember to praise the survivor for their courage. Each individual will have their own experience, but overwhelmingly, sexual abuse is wrought with coaching and gaslighting of victims to prevent them from telling anyone about the abuse. Recognize that no matter how long it took the survivor to come forward, it takes courage to speak up and relive the trauma in their efforts to bring their story to light. Additionally, as you build rapport with the survivor, do not be afraid to refer to what happened to them as abuse or an assault. In many instances, the abuse may not have been acknowledged as such, and referring to it appropriately is empowering to the survivor.
It is important to have an intake staff that is specially trained on how to manage these conversations. At Epiq, our call center teams are specially trained by experts before speaking to any sexual abuse survivors.
Another area where sexual abuse cases have unique considerations is at the time of settlement. Lien resolution is a particularly tricky area when dealing with sexual abuse cases. Physical injury claims are often made and released as part of the settlement, which will trigger the reimbursement rights of the victim’s health insurance plans.
These victims have survived trauma and it is crucial to not inflict even more pain by causing a loss of healthcare coverage for failure to reimburse the plan, or by cannibalizing the settlement with lien repayment. Working with a third-party administrator is key to ensuring the survivors get the lowest possible repayment value. Epiq has years of experience working on these types of settlements, and has designed a proprietary healthcare lien waiver process, minimizing, if not removing, any repayment obligations.
Representing survivors of sexual abuse is important and rewarding, but the utmost care must be exercised when handling the cases. Hiring a third party with experience in these matters can help your firm to build a better case inventory and secure the best net settlement award values for your clients. Epiq has the experience and training to handle all aspects of these litigations with sensitivity, and we have a proven track record of achieving favorable lien repayment values in these types of cases.
For more information, please contact Crystal Utley at firstname.lastname@example.org.