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Department of Transportation Settles USMMA Sexual Assault Claim

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File image courtesy USMMA

By The Maritime Executive 12-10-2020 08:56:00

The federal government has paid its first settlement ever for a sexual assault tort claim at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), lawyers for the claimant said Wednesday. It is the first settlement of its kind for incidents at any of the nation's five service academies. 

The claim in question was filed by a member of the USMMA men's soccer team, who alleged that he had been subjected to a hazing ritual involving sexual assault that occurred on a bus during a team trip in 2016. The claimant quit the team and left the school, and he reported the incident to the the academy's superintendent. In response, the U.S. Department of Transportation - USMMA's parent agency - began an investigation, and the academy withdrew the men's team from NCAA competition. In August 2018, that DOT internal investigation concluded that several freshmen players “were, in fact, assaulted by soccer team seniors at the back of the team bus while on travel” in a “long standing / systemic hazing ritual."

In 2018, the claimant filed a Federal Tort Claims Act administrative claim against the Maritime Administration, alleging that the government was liable for USMMA personnel's failure to supervise the team. MARAD settled for $1.4 million in March 2020, with no admission of wrongdoing. The payment has now been transferred. 

“The settlement payment ends a grueling four-year journey for my client. He has shown exceptional courage and perseverance to see the matter through. He and his family can now heal and move on with their lives to better things ahead,” said attorneys Thomas Grasso (USMMA '91) and David Schneider (USMMA '91).

Grasso said that the congressional delegation of West Virginia provided assistance and advocacy, and he thanked the Trump administration - particularly Attorney General William Barr - for approving the settlement agreement. 

"We thank MARAD and DOT legal counsel for their cooperation and professionalism in hearing the claim and helping to bring this matter to a positive resolution," Grasso said. "We hope that the Academy will continue to make the positive, substantive changes necessary to improve Academy culture and ensure that its Midshipmen are safe and trained in the best environment possible."

Grasso told Politico that in recent years, the Academy has made great strides with raising awareness about sexual assault and harassment on campus, and it has given midshipmen training to step in and stop problems early.