House Bill 249 is currently in the Civil Justice Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives and has had five hearings. Credit: Joe Matts | Lantern Reporter

Survivors of former university physician Richard Strauss will be able to sue Ohio State if a bill in the Ohio House of Representatives is passed. 

The survivors are currently barred from taking action against Ohio State by the statute of limitations — a time limit for filing lawsuits — for this type of civil case. Proposed by Ohio State Rep. Brett Hillyer, a Republican representing Tuscarawas County and part of Holmes County, House Bill 249 is intended to give victims an opportunity for compensation by lifting the statute of limitations for Strauss victims.

“These victims were molested for years and many reported the abuse and no one at OSU stopped Dr. Strauss. In fact, they kept feeding him more victims for 20 years. It’s a unique and disgusting case that shows the power of Dr. Strauss and all those who let it happen,” Hillyer said in an email.

An independent investigation conducted by Perkins Coie, LLP, released in May, found that Ohio State failed to stop Strauss from abusing at least 177 students during his career. Ohio State’s latest count, according to a university press release, includes nearly 1,500 instances of Strauss-related abuse. These reports include instances of rape and fondling. 

Strauss died by suicide in 2005.

The bill is currently in the Civil Justice Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives and has had five hearings. Representatives have heard from supporters and opponents of the bill, including Strauss victims and political organizations.

Hillyer said the bill is modeled after similar legislation in Michigan that lifted the statute of limitations in the case of former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar. According to Michigan State’s 2019 Annual Crime Report, on- and off-campus crimes related to Nassar reported in 2018 total 987 counts of rape and 150 counts of fondling. 

The current statute of limitations in this case is two years, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission’s analysis of the bill. Hillyer said the bill is necessary because although many of the victims reported the abuse to Ohio State, no one did anything to stop it while it was happening.

“Sadly the challenges are that OSU isn’t accepting responsibility but rather using a legal loophole to stop these cases from moving forward. If they would agree to mediate in good faith we wouldn’t need this legislation,” Hillyer said.

In response, university spokesperson Ben Johnson said in an email that the university has been covering the cost of counseling services for anyone affected by Strauss’ abuse and reimbursing people for related counseling they have already received.

“The university is actively participating in good faith in the mediation process directed by the federal court,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said Ohio State has worked to investigate Strauss’ sexual misconduct through an independent investigation, asking for assistance from former students, listening to the testimony of survivors and keeping the community informed.

“Ohio State has implemented multiple additional safeguards in the 20 years since Strauss left the university and is committed to appropriately addressing Strauss’ abuse from decades ago. Richard Strauss’ actions are reprehensible, and we remain deeply concerned for all those who have been affected by Strauss,” Johnson said.

Camille Crary, director of legal services and policy at Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence and a proponent of the bill, said in an email that the statute of limitations on civil suits for sexual abuse cases is “inconceivably brief,” and the bill should be expanded to all cases of abuse.

“House Bill 249 is one of many bills over the years that has sought to remedy a particular factual situation. Unfortunately, lawmakers cannot predict every avenue an abuser will use to avoid accountability, no more than they can fully approach a problem by legislating exceptions for specific groups of survivors,” Crary said. 

The only opposing testimony came from Kevin Shimp of the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice Sept. 10, who spoke about the importance of a statute of limitations and the dangers of removing it in a specific case. 

Shimp said during his testimony that the purpose of a time limit in these cases is to create certainty in legal matters and protect the right of an individual or organization to defend itself. These limits make sure evidence and witnesses are still available, he said.

“Reviving time-barred claims is also detrimental to Ohio employers because they can no longer rely on a statute of limitation ending potential liability,” Shimp said. “Without the certainty created by a statute of limitation, these employers will face higher costs and will be operating in a business climate with less predictability.”

The Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice did not respond to a request for further comment. 

Hillyer said it is possible the bill will be passed by the legislature. The Civil Justice Committee may recommend the bill to the House for a full chamber vote following further hearings. 

“I feel confident we can get this through the legislature. We’ve already had 5 hearings and I expect more,” Hillyer said.