The parents of slain track star Lauren McCluskey have agreed to discuss a possible settlement to their $56 million lawsuit filed against the University of Utah.
The meeting will be held next week via videoconference over two days — May 19 and 20 — with officials from the U. being represented by the state attorney general’s office.
“Because it’s a mediation, either party can leave the table at any time,” said Jim McConkie, the Salt Lake City attorney hired by the McCluskeys. But, he noted, “if this helps bring them and the university closer together and enhances the chance for success,” then they’re willing to cooperate.
The McCluskeys sued last June, alleging that campus police at the U. could have prevented their daughter’s murder. Lauren, 21, was fatally shot outside her dorm Oct. 22, 2018 by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole whom she had briefly dated. He died by suicide hours later.
Lauren, though, had contacted campus police several times in the weeks before that to report that he was harassing her after she ended their relationship Oct. 9. Many of those concerns were not taken seriously, according to a later independent review.
The officer assigned to her case had Lauren fill out a statement in the lobby of the police department. And he never discovered that Rowland was on parole — even though what Lauren was reporting could have sent Rowland back to prison for violating the terms of his release.
Additionally, the detective who was supposed to look into it never did. She took several days off before Lauren was killed.
“Lauren was senselessly murdered by the man from whom she had repeatedly sought protection and about whom she had repeatedly complained to the university,” McConkie alleges.
The review team that looked into how the U. handled the case found that officers there did not recognize the warning signs of potential domestic violence — largely because they lacked the necessary training. And since then, more women and some staff have come forward to share their stories of also being ignored by the campus department, including with cases of sexual assault and rape.
The U. has maintained in response filings, though, that it wasn’t liable for McCluskey’s death because her attacker was not affiliated with campus, and it therefore had no control over his actions.
An initial hearing in the case to go over arguments from both sides was scheduled for this month, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. That has also impacted how the mediation will be done. The plaintiffs and defendants usually meet at a table to discuss an agreement.
During the meeting next week, the McCluskeys and their attorneys will be on one video call and the U. and its representation on another. A mediator will jump between the two, attempting to broker a deal between the parties.
McConkie believes that will work well for his clients, so they don’t have to directly face those who they believe disregarded their daughter’s concerns.
Joni Jones, a prosecutor who is representing the U., noted Monday: “Our focus has been on trying to resolve the case.”
The McCluskeys’ attorneys had drafted a separate and second lawsuit to be filed in state court — as opposed to their original complaint in federal court — that alleges the U. also violated the Utah Constitution. An early copy shared with The Salt Lake Tribune makes the claim that the school denied Lauren equal protection under the law, discriminating against her because she was a woman.
It would have been dealt with concurrently in the courts. But the parents’ attorneys agreed not to file it unless they can’t come to an agreement during mediation.
It names the same defendants as the federal case, including the officer and the detective assigned to Lauren’s case, as well as the U. and the state, which funds the public school. It also names the school’s former police chief Dale Brophy, who stepped down amid the criticism, and officials in the housing department.
“Lauren reported to U. Police and they responded with deliberate indifference,” said Jill McCluskey, Lauren’s mother, in an email about the state lawsuit. “Our legal team determined that the state of Utah does not have immunity from wrongful death claims based on the state’s constitution.”
The McCluskeys have promised that any money raised through the litigation — even in settlement — will go to the foundation they set up to honor Lauren by supporting other student athletes.