6 women sue USC, alleging they were victimized by campus gynecologist
Six women filed civil lawsuits Monday alleging that a longtime gynecologist at the University of Southern California sexually victimized them under the pretext of medical care and that USC failed to address complaints from clinic staff about the doctor’s behavior.
One woman alleged Dr. George Tyndall forced his entire ungloved hand into her vagina during an appointment in 2003 while making “vulgar” remarks about her genitalia, according to one of the lawsuits. Another woman alleged that Tyndall groped her breasts in a 2008 visit and that later he falsely told her she “likely had AIDS.” A third woman accused the doctor of grazing his ungloved fingers over her nude body and leering at her during a purported skin exam, the lawsuit states.
The wave of litigation comes as USC continues to grapple with the scandal, which legal experts said could prove costly to the university as scores of former patients come forward about their experiences with the gynecologist.
Tyndall, 71, who worked at USC’s student health clinic for nearly three decades, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. In earlier interviews with The Times, the physician defended his medical exams as thorough and appropriate, adding that frank and honest dialogue about sex lives was part of his way of treating late adolescents who were enrolled at USC.
“I never had any sexual urges” toward patients, he said in an interview.
Tyndall has not been charged with any crimes. Capt. Billy Hayes, who oversees the Los Angeles Police Department’s high-profile sex crimes unit, confirmed that police had not taken formal reports about Tyndall but discussed the investigation with USC and an attorney for several former patients.
USC’s handling of Tyndall has sparked outrage, prompting some faculty members to voice open criticism of President C.L. Max Nikias. A petition calling for Nikias’ firing has gained more than 1,500 signatures.
“We need to make a statement here that we need to change our practices,” said one of the plantiffs, Viva Symanski, 30. She alleged Tyndall touched her inappropriately and asked repeatedly about her sex life during a January 2014 appointment.
USC has acknowledged that administrators had reports about misconduct by Tyndall dating back to at least the early 2000s. Officials conceded last week that the gynecologist should have been removed from the clinic years earlier because of the severity of the complaints.
Tyndall was not suspended until June 2016, after a supervising nurse, Cindy Gilbert, became frustrated by clinic administrators for not taking complaints against Tyndall seriously and reported him to the campus rape crisis center. He was placed on paid leave for nearly one year and barred from the clinic while an internal investigation was underway.
Some of the most serious complaints concerned his use of fingers at the start of pelvic exams. Witnesses told The Times the physician routinely inserted one finger and then a second in patients after voicing concern that a speculum might not fit, and commented on the tightness of their vaginal muscles as he probed them.
In recent interviews with The Times, Tyndall said his use of fingers had a legitimate medical purpose and said some of his comments to patients were misinterpreted.
USC’s inquiry determined that the pelvic exams were outside the scope of accepted medical practice and amounted to sexual harassment of patients.
But USC brokered a secret deal that allowed Tyndall to resign with an undisclosed payout. He was not reported to the medical board at the time. Last week, USC also acknowledged that not reporting Tyndall to the medical board was a mistake. A belated complaint was filed in March.
USC Provost Michael Quick issued a letter Monday morning apologizing to Tyndall’s patients and rebutting the notion that top administrators chose to ignore complaints by patients and staff.
“It is true that our system failed, but it is important that you know that this claim of a cover-up is patently false,” Quick wrote in a letter. “We would never knowingly put students in harm’s way.”
Quick added that “settlements never sound appropriate,” but given USC’s size and complexity, “it is often the most expedient way to remove someone from the university.”
The provost said that the university’s senior leadership did not learn about the complaints against Tyndall until 2017.
John Manly, an Orange County lawyer who is representing four former patients, disagreed and said it was evident that the university ignored complaints about Tyndall for years.
“It doesn’t matter how many people get hurt. It is all about protecting USC’s reputation,” said Manly, who helped secure a $500-million settlement last week from Michigan State University for scores of former patients of Dr. Larry Nassar.
The lawsuits say that many women did not recognize that what they experienced amounted to abuse until the allegations were revealed by The Times.
Lucy Chi, who filed a federal class action lawsuit in the Central District of California, alleged she was violated by the physician in a 2012 appointment when he inserted his fingers into her vagina. She said she came to believe Tyndall’s behavior was improper after reading a Times investigation that detailed the trail of misconduct complaints lodged by patients and clinic staff for years.
In a third lawsuit, a young woman who graduated from USC’s law school in 2016 alleged Tyndall inserted his fingers inside her at the outset of a pelvic exam and remarked on the tightness of her genital muscles.
“She’s in hindsight thinking, ‘I’m not sure there’s a reason for that to be done,’ ” said her attorney, David Ring. “She realizes now some of the things he did in the exam are probably unnecessary and done only for his own prurient reasons.”
Gynecologists routinely touch their patients during well-woman visits, so one aspect of the litigation will entail assessing whether each allegation against Tyndall constitutes misconduct. And for many seeing a gynecologist, the pelvic exam can feel invasive and sometimes uncomfortable.
Such a delayed notice will factor into the litigation, lawyers said. Ronald Labriola, an Irvine attorney who is representing four of the women, said the plaintiffs will argue that the two-year statute of limitations does not apply to the gynecologist’s conduct.
“For 99.95% of these patients, they didn’t have a true understanding of the abuse until last week,” he said, referring to the publication of The Times’ report.
On Friday, Nikias wrote a letter to the community saying he’s personally read the accounts of Tyndall’s former patients and was left troubled.
“The former physician’s behavior distresses us deeply,” Nikias wrote. “He should have been removed and referred to the authorities years ago.”
San Francisco attorney Paul E. Gaspari, who has defended school districts and Catholic dioceses in sex abuse suits, said that given the number of women coming forward and the consistency of their complaints, USC is all but certain to negotiate a mass settlement “for the good of the victims as well as the good of the institution.”
“It is almost impossible to take them one by one. One case alone could easily result in a runaway verdict,” Gaspari said. “You want to identify as many of the plaintiffs as you can and collectively deal with them.”
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8:10 p.m.: Updated with changes throughout.
This article was originally published at 11:51 a.m.
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