Claims against Indy-based USA Diving, coach in sex assault case proceed

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A negligence claim brought against Indianapolis-based USA Diving and employees accused of failing to report sexual assault will continue after a federal judge denied multiple motions to dismiss Tuesday.

Indiana Southern District Judge William T. Lawrence allowed negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims to continue against USA Diving, the Indiana Diving Academy — which operates as RipFest Diving — and John Wingfield, president of the Indiana Diving Academy residential facility in Arcadia. The defendants are accused of having knowledge that two coaches, Johel Ramirez Suarez and Chris Heaton, sexually assaulted divers and employees, but failed to report the assaults to police.

According to the Tuesday order in Amy Stevens, et al. v. USA Diving, Inc., et al., 1:18-cv-3015, Suarez, a citizen of Venezuela, touched and rubbed 16-year-old diver Amy Stevens’ vulva while helping her stretch. Suarez allegedly did the same to other minor athletes training at the Indiana Diving Academy.

Additionally, Suarez allegedly attempted to digitally penetrate Jane Doe 1, an employee of the Indiana Diving Academy, while she was asleep. Other athletes and staff subsequently complained of Suarez touching them inappropriately.

Suarez pleaded guilty in 2017 to three counts of battery stemming from allegations that he touched the vulva of a minor diver at the Indiana academy.

Meanwhile, Heaton, the former head diving coach at Harvard University, is accused of sending sexually explicit texts to Stevens, asking her to send nude and sexually graphic photos. Heaton also sent such photos of himself, and several Indiana Diving athletes and staff complained of sexual harassment via Heaton’s texts.

Complaints about Suarez and Heaton were made to Wingfield and other representatives of USA Diving and the Indiana Diving Academy. The complaint says Wingfield was “dismissive” of the complaints, many of which were made in 2016.

USA Diving, Indiana Diving Academy and Wingfield moved to dismiss three negligence-related claims brought as a result of their alleged failure to report the sexual abuse, but Lawrence denied each motion.

Though Lawrence did not determine whether USA Diving owed a legal duty to the plaintiffs, he nonetheless found that “the Plaintiffs have presented a series of factual allegations against USA Diving that state a plausible claim for relief … .” He reached similar conclusions as to the two other defendants.

“Defendant USA Diving also argues that ‘Indiana Courts have never permitted an action seeking damages for emotional distress predicated on a breach of an alleged duty not to inflict emotional injury on another and ‘such independent, stand-along actions for negligent infliction of emotional distress are not cognizable in Indiana,’’” Lawrence wrote. “However, the duty alleged by the Plaintiffs is a duty to provide a safe environment, and the Plaintiffs have alleged that they suffered a direct physical impact at the hands of one of USA Diving’s agents as a result of that breach of duty.”

Several other counts in the plaintiffs’ complaint were dismissed on the plaintiffs’ motion, including the dismissal without prejudice of Indiana Diving Association of USA Diving, Inc.

A similar lawsuit has been filed against USA Diving, the Ohio State University and coach Will Bohonyi, alleging the organization failed to take action on reports that Bohonyi was coercing divers into sex. That case, Pryor, et al. v. USA Diving, Inc. and Will Bohonyi, 1:18-cv-2113, was stayed and administratively closed in December pending resolution of an Ohio criminal action against Bohonyi.

A spokeswoman for USA Diving did not respond to a request for comment.

In an email to Indiana Lawyer, RipFest and Wingfield's Michigan-based attorney said they were pleased Lawrence agreed to dismiss the federal claims against those two defendants. 

"John and RipFest deny the allegations against them in the strongest possible terms and remain focused on providing the highest quality training for its diving students in an extremely professional and safe environment," Steven F. Stapleton of Clark Hill PLC in Grand Rapids wrote. 

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