Two lawsuits seeking damages for sexual assault of a minor and negligence against former U.S. Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe George Morris and the U.S. Equestrian Federation continue to move forward in New York State. Another lawsuit filed on the same day on behalf of Gigi Gaston in California against the USEF and Flintridge Riding Club, the facility where top trainer Jimmy Williams taught and is alleged to have abused multiple minors, is also developing as well.
The lawsuits were filed under the New York Child Victims Act and the California Child Victims Act, which extend the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual abuse.
On Aug. 5, Jonathan Soresi brought a claim against Morris and the USEF for sexual battery against Morris, negligence against all defendants and negligent supervision/failure to warn against USEF and Does 1-5. An anonymous second man (AG1 Doe) brought a similar claim against Morris, with the addition of Topping Riding Club as a defendant. The phrase “Does 1-5” acts as a placeholder in case prosecutors uncover others who are responsible as the case proceeds.
The court must approve the use of the pseudonym AG1 Doe in New York. Both USEF and Topping Riding Club have agreed, but Morris’ lawyers oppose the John Doe status and are trying to force that survivor to publically reveal his identity. Attorney Mike Reck of Anderson Advocates, who represents Soresi and AG1 Doe, opposed the request, and both sides are waiting for the judge to rule.
Reck said the move was shocking. According to Reck when New York’s Child Victims Act first came into existence some of the first heavily litigated cases involved the Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of New York fought against allowing alleged survivors of child sexual assault to use John Doe status, and Judge George Silver in New York County Court quelled that tactic, ruling that survivors could proceed as John Doe.
“That issue was pretty well settled pretty quickly,” said Reck. “At this point most institutional defendants realize [forbidding survivors to proceed as John Doe] does nothing but cause more harm and act as an intimidation factor to not allow child victims, at any point in their life, to come forward, for whatever those reasons may be. The thought of forcing survivors to publicly talk about this and have their name be out there would have a chilling effect.”
Reck said it’s common for survivors of child sexual assault to file under John Doe status.
“A lot of people who still suffer shame and embarrassment may not want friends, family, or co-workers to know,” he said. “They didn’t have a choice when they were children. The law generally gives them the choice. They didn’t choose to be abused as kids. Now they get the control to see how their story is publicly known.”
After being served with the documents, the defendants, Topping Riding Club, USEF and Morris, will file separate responses in court.
The lawyers for Flintridge have answered the complaint, listing 14 points in defense of their client. Notable arguments include that Gaston, a child at the time, “failed to mitigate her own damages,” and “unreasonably failed to make reasonable efforts or expenditures to avoid the consequences of the alleged harassment committed by Jimmy Williams, including but not limited to terminating the teaching relationship with Jimmy Williams, reporting the events to local authorities, her parents or other adult figures at the time the alleged events were occurring.”
Reck, who also represents Gaston, described this tactic, which lawyers for Flintridge deemed the “avoidable consequences doctrine,” as a callous, stunning and untenable position in 2020.
“It’s something we have seen before, but it’s something I haven’t seen very often in recent times,” said Reck. “This is something our office has seen decades in the past. I’m talking ‘Spotlight’ time period in the early 2000s when defense lawyers would oftentimes fight very hard against survivors.
“As lawyers on both sides of the table really came into modern times with how humans process this kind of trauma and what the valid legal arguments are, [victim blaming tactics] have really gone away,” he added. “It’s pretty uncommon to see victim blaming like this.”
Flintridge’s lawyers’ other arguments include that Williams was not an employee of Flintridge at the time of the alleged abuse, that Flintridge did not assume duty of care to supervise Gaston while she was receiving riding lessons, and that the statute of limitations on her claim has run out. (The California Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual abuse.)
The USEF has yet to answer the complaint. Once they do, the case will go into discovery, when depositions will take place.
The Chronicle reached out to Morris’ attorneys and Flintridge’s attorneys for comment but did not receive a response by press time.
If you have been affected by sexual assault and need confidential, anonymous support, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE or chat online at online.rainn.org. For more information on the U.S. Center for SafeSport and their policies and procedures, visit uscenterforsafesport.org.