State leaders gave their initial approval Tuesday for a $13.5 million legal settlement — one of the largest in Utah history — to be paid to the parents of slain track athlete Lauren McCluskey.
The amount had been previously agreed upon between Jill and Matt McCluskey and the University of Utah and was announced in October, on the two-year anniversary of McCluskey’s 2018 murder on campus. But any settlement exceeding a million dollars involving a state entity must go before the Legislature for a vote.
It got unanimous support from committee and will next go to the full House floor, where it’s also expected to sail through without issue.
“If we felt there were no basis for liability … we wouldn’t be before you today,” acknowledged Brian Nelson, the state’s risk management director.
But, he added, there were shortcomings in how police responded to McCluskey’s case, and “we feel this is the appropriate way to resolve this matter and the appropriate amount.” Nelson confirmed it was among the largest settlements on record for the state.
Since the university is a public institution of the state, Utah’s risk fund will be tapped for $1 million of the total amount, so it won’t require a new appropriation, and insurance will cover $9.5 million. That combined total, $10.5 million, will go directly to McCluskey’s parents. The U. will then pay the remaining $3 million — from an unrestricted, non-taxpayer-funded account — which will all go to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation that her parents have set up to improve campus safety nationwide.
Separate funds, aside from the $13.5 million settlement, will also be raised to build a new indoor track on campus to bear McCluskey’s name.
“The settlement doesn’t bring this young lady back to her parents,” said Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who sponsored the resolution to approve the agreement. “It’s a tragic situation. All of us are deeply saddened by it.”
McCluskey, 21, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old man whom she had briefly dated. She had ended their relationship a short while earlier after she discovered he had lied to her about his name, age and criminal history.
When Rowland then began threatening and extorting her, McCluskey tried to report her concerns several times to campus police. But she was not taken seriously, according to an independent review of her case. It was also later confirmed that the officer assigned to look into her allegations instead showed off to his co-workers the explicit photos that McCluskey had sent him as evidence.
McCluskey’s parents originally filed two civil rights lawsuits against the school, one in state court and the other in federal court, which alleged the U. could have done more to keep McCluskey safe. They asked for $56 million in each.
As part of the settlement and in addition to the approved money, University of Utah leadership acknowledged for the first time in a statement last year that they failed the young woman and her death was, in fact, “preventable.” U. President Ruth Watkins said she was “sincerely sorry.”
On Tuesday, Nelson, the risk manager, said the resolution is “in the best interest of the state” after leaders have continued to learn more about the missteps made in the case. It was also approved by the Utah Attorney General’s Office. If the team there thought they had less liability, Nelson added, “we would instead be having a jury tell us what should happen here.”
But that’s not the situation, he said. With the settlement, he hopes, both parties will be able to move on. The family has previously said the same.
“This is obviously a difficult matter,” Nelson noted. “There’s certainly a lot at stake and a lot at play here.”
Several lawmakers also commented that they felt comfortable moving forward with the agreement. And they added that they liked that the new track and the U.’s Center for Violence Prevention would both be named in honor of McCluskey so that her legacy can live on.
“You can’t put a dollar price on the life of a loved one,” said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George. “But we do the best we can. And we settle these disputes this way so that both sides to the controversy can move forward.”
How McCluskey’s concerns were mishandled, he said, too, “has been a cloud over our state. It has been a cloud over this institution that we love, the University of Utah.”
Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, added that he thinks the case will continue to have impacts for years to come — particularly in helping reform campus police departments.
Prior to the settlement, the case was set to go to trial early this year.