University Place School District Pays $9,500,000 to Settle Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Involving Former Wrestling Coach

May 22, 2023 | Firm News, Sexual Abuse

The University Place School District has agreed to pay $9,500,000 to three former students, J.N.1, J.N.2, and M.C., who allege they were sexually abused by Curtis Junior High and Curtis High School volunteer wrestling coach David O’Connor. The settlement will allow the parties to avoid a 4-week jury trial that was scheduled to begin on May 22, 2023, before the Honorable Matthew H. Thomas in Pierce County Superior Court.

In their lawsuit against the University Place School District, filed in October 2021, the plaintiffs allege they were sexually abused between 2005 and 2007 by coach David O’Connor during an off-campus weightlifting and conditioning program he developed through his coaching position. The students were between 14 and 16 years old. Coach O’Connor was a volunteer wrestling coach at Curtis Junior High and Curtis High School from 2003 to 2010.

One of the plaintiffs previously reported the abuse to Tacoma police in 2014 but was told that the criminal statute of limitations had expired and therefore O’Connor could not be prosecuted.

Attorneys Vincent “Vinnie” Nappo, Steve Reich and Benjamin Watson of the law firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC, along with Ashton Dennis of Washington Law Center, were counsel on the three cases. Vinnie and Reich were preparing to try the civil case in front of Judge Thomas. These firms have done extensive work handling child sexual abuse cases, including cases involving sexual abuse at schools, youth organizations, youth athletics, churches, day care centers, foster care and within the home.

The attorneys were first contacted in 2020 by an O’Connor victim in another matter. The two law firms represent multiple O’Connor victims together and previously successfully resolved cases on behalf of six men with similar claims against the University Place School District.

According to Vinnie, the University Place School District never should have allowed O’Connor to coach at the school because he was previously convicted of crimes against children.

“We uncovered evidence that Coach O’Connor was found guilty in 1977 of sexually abusing five children in Chehalis, Washington,” Vinnie said. “Unfortunately, the district did not flag Coach O’Connor’s criminal history in its hiring and screening process before giving him a coaching position.”

Vinnie further explained the plaintiffs also alleged that the district failed to enforce safe boundaries between Coach O’Connor and its student wrestlers.

“A number of witnesses were going to testify at trial that Coach O’Connor was known to be ‘touchy feely’ towards boys and acted inappropriately in the locker room,” Vinnie said. “In addition, it was known among coaches that Coach O’Connor spent time alone with students off campus weightlifting. We believe Coach O’Connor’s locker room behavior and out-of-school contact with students should have raised concerns.”

Vinnie’s law partner, Steve, commented on the devastating, but predictable, outcome in cases like this where a predator is given a position of power over children.

“We spoke with nearly a dozen former students from the district’s wrestling teams who were prepared to testify that Coach O’Connor used his coaching position to access, isolate and sexually abuse them,” Steve said. “We also learned from witnesses that Coach O’Connor was believed to have abused children outside of the wrestling program, including from his church and in the neighborhood.”

Steve added, “We commend the district on the settlement, which will allow these three men to avoid a lengthy jury trial. Our clients are also very pleased with the settlement and hope that it sends a strong message to schools to be vigilant in their hiring and youth protection practices.”

Co-counsel, Ashton Dennis, further commented on the settlement.

“While it has been disturbing to learn of the many victims from our community who were abused by O’Connor and continue to come forward, I am extremely proud of our team’s efforts that resulted in this significant settlement without having to go to trial, which can be very difficult on abuse survivors,” Ashton said.

Media Coverage about the lawsuit:
Survivor of alleged sexual abuse by former wrestling coach speaking out hoping to inspire other victims, Fox13, 5/23/23
‘Coaches are very powerful’: Pierce County school district settles sex-abuse claims, Tri-City Herald & The Olympian, 5/23/23
University Place School District settles near 20-year old sex abuse case, KIRO7, 5/22/23
This Pierce County school district has agreed to pay $9.5M to settle sex-abuse claims, The News Tribune, 5/22/23
U-Place School District to pay millions to settle sexual abuse lawsuit Involving former coach, KIRO7, 5/22/23
University Place School District settles sexual abuse case for $9.5M, MYNorthwest, 5/22/23
U-Place School District to pay millions to settle sexual abuse lawsuit Involving former coach, Yahoo news, 5/22/23