DOJ agrees to historic settlement with Merchant Marine Academy sexual assault victim

The Justice Department is paying a settlement for a former student at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who was sexually assaulted, in what the victim’s lawyers characterized as the first such settlement for sexual assault at any of the United States’ five federal service academies.

The $1.4 million settlement with the Maritime Administration (MARAD), a Department of Transportation subagency that oversees the academy, came after the victim, a member of the men’s soccer team, was forcibly restrained, sexually assaulted and hazed in 2016.

Thomas Grasso, a lawyer for the victim, told POLITICO the settlement was agreed to in March but payment was held up for months at DOJ — until the West Virginia congressional delegation intervened to press the department on the matter. Attorney General William Barr personally approved payment in November.

The settlement marks the first time a victim of sexual assault at one of the nation’s five federal service academies has successfully recovered damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act, under which the federal government recognizes liability for the negligence of its employees, according to the victim’s attorneys.

“The settlement payment ends a grueling four-year journey for my client,” said Grasso and his co-attorney David Schneider in a statement. “He has shown exceptional courage and perseverance to see the matter through.”

A MARAD spokesperson confirmed that the agency had agreed to the settlement in mediation and that DOJ had paid $1.4 million to the plaintiff. The settlement includes no admission of wrongdoing by DOT. DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.

An inspector general investigation two years after the assault in question found that several players had been assaulted while on a team bus, part of a “systemic hazing ritual” that was considered a “tradition” at the school.

The Merchant Marine Academy has been under fire for years for having the highest rate of sexual assault and harassment of any of the federal service academies but Grasso, who is himself a 1991 graduate, said he thinks the school has turned a corner.

“They’ve done an excellent job with awareness,” he said. “They’ve really tried to empower the students to take a stand, not be a bystander who ignores it, and to give them the training and the courage to step up and stop this kind of thing.”

And in working on the settlement, MARAD “understood and believed what happened,” Grasso said.


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