By Alison Preece | November 30, 2020 | Lawyer Limelights, News & Features
Long before the #MeToo movement brought sexual abuse and harassment to the forefront of our collective awareness, Dave Ring has been battling major institutions on behalf of young victims – and securing outstanding results.
Ring started this practice in the mid-90s, when sexual abuse was often blamed on the victim and cases were frequently settled quietly before trial because the whole thing was considered so shameful. Although he has a markedly laid-back demeanor, Ring is a bulldog in the courtroom, and he never shied away from bringing these cases to trial.
After his first $10M jury verdict for an abused student, Ring knew he had found a litigation niche for himself. As the widespread sexual abuse and cover-ups of the Catholic Church came to light, Ring was homing in on schools in California, bringing the most egregious cases to trial and securing record-breaking verdicts.
In 2002, Ring joined forces with renowned personal injury attorney John Taylor to open the California-based Taylor & Ring, which has since grown to 10 lawyers. The firm maintains a fairly even balance of sexual abuse and personal injury cases, including major car accident and police misconduct cases.
Natalie Weatherford joined the firm 10 years ago, straight out of law school, and has since grown a robust practice focused on sexual abuse, harassment, and civil rights litigation.
The past decade, of course, has been an active time to be doing this type of work. Weatherford and Ring have seen the impact of high-profile abuse cases on jurors, as the scrutiny of the cases against Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffery Epstein have provided an education for the general public. These days, with the recent increases in the statutes of limitations for sexual abuse cases, the attorneys at Taylor & Ring are handling an influx of older victims who are finally ready to seek justice.
They couldn’t have come to a better place. Weatherford has secured tens of millions of dollars in rewards for her clients in recent years, including a $25.3M verdict against a school in Long Beach for four years of abuse, and $4M for a woman who was raped at gunpoint at a shopping mall.
In the last two years alone, Ring has secured two separate results of nearly $50M each: a $46.2M settlement for the victims of Eric Uller, the City of Santa Monica employee and serial child abuser, and a $45.4M jury award against LA County at the Department of Children and Family Services for the years-long abuse of a young girl.
Even more encouraging? Neither of them are slowing down any time soon.
Lawdragon: From where I stand, there has been a significant shift in terms of sexual harassment in recent years. As a woman, I’m finding men to be more aware and respectful. In the media, it seems there’s been a real collective learning about what constitutes harassment, and an unlearning in terms of how abuse victims may or may not behave after the fact. From your long view on the legal end of things, have things changed?
David Ring: Well. How long do you have?
LD: I have all day.
DR: I started handling these cases in the mid 1990s, when I was a very young lawyer. Wildly, wildly different back then. These cases would settle very quickly and quietly, and probably not for a ton of money because back then, "Oh my gosh, it's so shameful to come forward, and you don't want to put your name on a lawsuit." That's what all the defense attorneys would say, and victims were afraid to come forward. They didn't want to go through the rigors of litigation, and I don't blame them.
You didn't have the access to information back then either, so these cases, they'd settle quietly, quickly. There was very little publicity. Then things started to change in the early 2000s with the Catholic Church crisis, which opened a lot of eyes to organizational abuse.
Let me pause, so I can be clear about something. In the legal community, there’s a real distinction between sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Sexual harassment is handled by an employment lawyer. You get harassed in the workplace. We do some of that, be we really represent victims who've been sexually abused, in a church or a school or a youth organization, that type of thing. Lawyers look at those cases as very different cases.
Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church started to come to light in the early 2000s. That whole scandal really opened a lot of eyes to organizational coverup, as these massive organizations like the Catholic Church would pass priests around, even though they knew. They knew that they were abusing kids, and that, obviously, really angered a lot of people. The public learned about it from news articles and media coverage, and I think it really opened their eyes to the harm that was done, and how it could be prevented.
Following that, at least here in California, the awards started getting bigger and bigger, because jurors understood the incredible harm that people suffered being abused as a child. Juries really would get angry at the schools, or churches. After a jury trial they realized, "They knew, and they didn't do anything about it, and this teacher or perpetrator went on and molested others." That awareness led to much bigger awards.
Early on a lot of my cases were against schools. It'd be teachers or coaches who were sexually abusing students, and they could be young students, like seven or eight years old. I also had a lot of cases with teenage students, in high school. They're manipulated and coerced into having this illegal relationship.
Bringing us up to now, with the #MeToo movement taking off around 2017, that just took it to a whole new level. I mean, that really, really, really educated the public as to the power dynamics of abuse, and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. It really took the stigma off of victims coming forward, because now you had all sorts of victims saying, "Yeah, I want my name attached to this. I'm not ashamed to come out and say I was sexually assaulted, or I was abused as a kid, or sexually assaulted as an adult female." That's super powerful, and has been a massive change.
LD: Natalie, you’ve been practicing law for the past 10 years, correct? How did you decide to get into this particular practice area?
Natalie Weatherford: When I first became a lawyer, I tried a couple of different practices. I tried entertainment law, and I tried working for a big defense firm through law school. The first job I got out of law school was working for a solo personal injury lawyer. I absolutely loved it. Just the idea of working for one client, who has been through one bad thing, and you really help them focus on that and get a tangible result. It really felt like what a lawyer should be doing, helping someone who's been through something horrible, helping them to get better, and helping them get compensation for what they've been through. Also, punishing the wrongdoer.
Then, when I passed the bar 10 years ago, I interviewed with Taylor & Ring. It was the first real job I had as a lawyer, and it's the only job I've had as a lawyer. I love it. It's an incredible place to be.
Sexual abuse and issues regarding sexual harassment, they were always on my radar, but I never realized I could have this type of practice where I exclusively represent victims of sexual abuse. I didn't know it existed, but now, living it for 10 years? It's my dream practice. It's really fulfilling. It's dynamic, and it's real litigation. You get to go into court, and fight for a specific purpose, and for someone who's been through something horrible. You get to, hopefully, change their life a little bit.
LD: Can you tell us about a recent case or client where your work in court really made a difference in their lives?
NW: John Taylor and I handled a case two years ago that went all the way to trial. It was venued in Long Beach, and it was a sexual abuse case where a 12-year-old boy was sexually abused by his coach, at a private school, over the course of three years. The sexual abuse was horrific. He was subjected to the abuse several times a week, for three years, and he didn't say anything about the abuse until he was an adult. Fast forward 10 years after the abuse occurs, and his life is a mess. He had gotten into drugs, he had failed out of schools. And it was all because of this abuse, that he had been keeping locked up for so many years.
When he finally gets the courage to tell, he's involved in a criminal case. The criminal case is a mess. Then, he comes to us, and we handle his civil case. His name is Steven, the plaintiff, and he was one of the most damaged, but also deserving, clients I've ever represented. He was going through drug problems, family problems. He had zero hope. He was so ashamed of the abuse. He felt like nothing was going to happen. He did not have any hope that there would ever be any light at the end of the tunnel, with his criminal case and with his civil case, because he just spent so many years trying not to think about it, trying to put the abuse behind him.
The case took two years, all the way to verdict. At the end of the day, we got him a $25.3M verdict.
It changed his whole life. Before the trial started, he went to rehab, because he had a horrible drug problem resulting from the abuse. He was just trying not to feel his feelings. The day before the trial started, he was released from rehab. He testified at the trial, stayed clean, and then he got his verdict. He's been clean ever since. We still keep in touch with him, and his whole life changed. He says, it's because people believed him, and were willing to go after the people who failed to protect him.
LD: That is such a beautiful result, and really underscores the importance of what you’re doing.
NW: It was a really tough trial, too. The liability wasn't really straightforward, and you never know what jurors are going to do. He had such a checkered past that, you worry the jurors might hold that against him. But, we had such amazing jurors in that case, they really all just sympathized and understood what he had gone through. He got a great verdict, at the end of the day. Even better, he is clean now. He's married. He has a stepson. He's doing great.
I think about him all the time, too. He was in my life almost every day during his case, just because I was like, "Steven, please take care of yourself. We're working over here, on your case. You just work on your life, and hopefully it'll all come together, in the end.” And it did.
LD: That’s so moving. Dave, back in the mid-90s when you started this type of work, it sounds like it was an uphill battle to get any real justice for these victims. What made you stick with it?
DR: Like a lot of young lawyers, in some senses I fell into it, but I also recognized it as an area with room for growth. Personally, I really, really enjoyed handling the cases. I also appreciated that you can't go wrong in these cases. They're so righteous, and no one was doing them.
So for me, I was an associate at a different law firm back then, a third- or fourth-year lawyer. Pat McNicholas, who I worked for then and who's a great friend of mine still, we tried one of these cases. No one was trying these cases, everyone settled them. But the school district low-balled us so we said, "We're going to trial.” We tried it in Los Angeles, and we got a $10M verdict, which back in 1996 was unheard of.
Then sure enough, it made headlines and all that, and suddenly the phone calls started coming in.
At the time, I said to myself, "This will never last.” We really focused a lot on schools back then, and after that first big verdict and the resulting media storm, I said, "This will become the number one priority for schools to fix. This isn't going to happen again. They're going to see this verdict, and they're going to put an end to this. There's no way they're going to allow this to happen in schools." Here I am, 25 years later, and it's still an epidemic. It's very sad.
Some school districts, I will say, have done a phenomenal job educating and supervising, and really trying to prevent this from happening. I've never had to sue the same school district twice. Once we're done with the case, a lot of districts change their policies, and increase their education of teachers and supervisors and administrators. It's incremental change, but it's really positive, and it's fulfilling.
Other schools and organizations have done an absolutely terrible job and continue to do a terrible job, and for whatever reason, do not make it a priority.
LD: With that first big verdict, was it a challenge to get the victim to agree to a trial?
DR: His parents didn't want to go, but to this kid’s credit, he did. Great kid, great family, and this kid was phenomenal. The jury, they understood him. Back then, the defense always banked on this idea that, "You can't put this kid on the stand. You can't put him through that.” I'll tell you what, these trials and cases are so empowering to victims, because they finally have control, and they see the process, and they turn the tables on the perpetrator. It's very empowering.
LD: Natalie, I read one of your recent pieces in The Advocate about safeguarding your plaintiff in sexual misconduct trials using the various legal protections that have been put in place in recent years. I was particularly interested in section 2017.220 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which makes it harder to bring a plaintiff's sexual history into the case. Can you talk about the difference that’s made?
NW: 2017 has been around for a little while now, and it's really important to these kinds of cases. Especially if you've got, let's say, an older victim of abuse. The defense will try and bring up their sexual history or their present sexual relationships, to try and paint them in some negative light, or to say that they somehow consented to the abuse.
The law protects them from that. That’s really important because, a lot of victims, especially when we're initially interviewing them for cases, they're so worried that they're going to have some smear campaign launched against them. Where, people are asking about all of their sexual relationships and everything, to try and prove that maybe somehow, they participated in their own sexual abuse. So, that's a really incredible tool, to keep that kind of information out of the case.
LD: Good. Because it’s irrelevant.
NW: Exactly, it's not relevant. Just because you're a human who has consensual sexual relationships, doesn't mean that you're any more likely to consent to sexual abuse. People still try it, they still try and get that information in through other means, but courts now are a lot better at stopping those kinds of tactics.
LD: People are still trying those tactics?
NW: Oh yes. This happens all the time, even recently. I'll have a deposition of my plaintiff, and she's a teenage girl or a young woman. Well, the defense will have printed out their Instagram pictures, or pictures of them from a cruise with their family, where they're in a bathing suit. And they'll bring them out in the deposition. I'm just like, "Absolutely not. You've got to be kidding me, these have nothing to do with the case."
They want to embarrass them. They want to make them look bad. And it's like, "This is 2020. This is a victim of sexual abuse." It’s hard to believe that still happens today, but it does. I don't put up with it in my practice, and no one at our firm does. I've seen other lawyers just kind of let it happen, though, and it's really awful. There are some really sick tactics that lawyers on the other side will use, to try and attack the victim.
LD: Unbelievable. From your perspective, practicing the last 10 years, was the #MeToo movement a massive sea change in terms of how this cases were getting litigated? I was watching the Weinstein trial with the rest of the world, and I thought it was great how the victims’ lawyers brought in experts to discuss the psychology of abuse victims, how they often don’t react in ways we might think they should.
NW: It's so nice to hear, that people are understanding that more now. In representing, unfortunately, hundreds of people who have been victims, I've never had two victims react to their abuse in the same way. Everyone reacts different. Some still want to continue talking to the perpetrator. Some don't immediately acknowledge that they've been abused, until many, many years later. There's no textbook way to react. But for some reason, people think that you should react in a certain way. Or they think, "Oh, I would react this way. So this person needs to react in a certain way." It's like, "No, no, no, no, no. It's totally different."
The impact of the public’s education in this space has been twofold. First, people and especially jurors are realizing that victims often don't tell about their abuse until a significant amount of time after it happened. That’s just the nature of the injury, the way that abuse works. The victim blames themselves. They just want to move on with their lives, and keep it a secret. Finally, when they're brave enough to tell, they were previously precluded from bringing a lawsuit, because they passed the statute of limitations, which is the time they were allowed to bring the suit.
More people are understanding that, and that is such a key component to bringing these types of cases. It's not like a victim gets sexually assaulted, and then runs and tells their parents the next day. No, they keep it inside for a really long time. Seeing the public understand that is massively important, and the most significant, important change in sexual abuse cases, I’d say, coming out of #MeToo.
On the other side, with all the attention that sexual abuse has gotten in the media, people are acutely aware that these lawsuits can result in a significant amount of money. I think that has caused some skepticism, in a way, that didn't necessarily exist before. They hear about people suing celebrities and these big payouts, and they think, maybe this is just a way for people to make money.
My response to that is always: The things that these people go through, that women and men who are victims of abuse go through to bring their case, to report to the police, have a civil case, jump through all these hoops and undergo all this scrutiny — no one does this voluntarily. No one does this for money. These are people who are suffering and who are brave, and who come forward because they want to make a difference and have their voice and story heard. Also, because it's eating them up inside, and they need to talk about it, they need to do something about it.
LD: Can you talk more about the statute of limitations for these types of cases? We’re seeing the law evolve in the right direction there, correct?
DR: Across the nation, there's been a real surge in states enlarging the statute of limitations for victims to bring a lawsuit. New York, in January of this year, they enlarged their statute of limitations, where people who are in their 50s can bring a lawsuit now for being abused as a child.
Some states haven't done that yet, but a lot have. In California, they also enlarged the statute in January, with Assembly Bill 218, which made it a lot easier for adults to bring a lawsuit for what happened to them as children, against organizations. We’re really seeing the impact of that. A lot of victims have come forward to our firm since January, it's really amazing.
NW: Yes, we've been having a lot of really righteous cases come in since AB218 went into effect, from people who previously were barred because of the statute. We’re seeing a lot of victims who are well into adulthood, 50 and 60 year old men and women, who are finally ready to talk about their abuse and want to know if they can do something legally.
LD: Was your firm involved in any lobbying for AB218 to pass?
DR: Yes, lawyers played a role in it, but it's really the victim advocate groups that were behind it. They tried in the past, about seven years ago, and it got all the way to Governor Brown’s desk and he vetoed it. Then Gavin Newsom came in as governor last year, and he signed it.
Some states still haven't done it. Some states refuse to do it. But a lot of states have, and it's really beneficial.
LD: You've brought sexual abuse cases against schools, churches, youth groups. Do you find that one group or type of institution is more challenging than others, in terms of their cooperation?
DR: That’s a good question. It’s interesting, you would think that when a lawsuit like this gets filed against any one of these organizations they would go, "Oh my gosh, this is horrible. We got to do the right thing here." I'm telling you, nine out of 10 times they fight it like any other lawsuit, and they put the victim through a lot of stress in the lawsuit. It's just shocking to me. They treat it like anything else, and they do their best to try to beat the victim down in the case. Whether that's the lawyers doing it, or the client giving the green light for the lawyers doing it, it continues to amaze me.
There are some organizations that handle it the right way. The Catholic Church has come a long way, at least out here in Los Angeles. The LA Archdiocese, they really, really, really turned it around. They had to, of course; it was despicable, what they did. But they've really turned it around, where they handle these cases with kid gloves now.
Schools are always challenging because every school district is its own entity, so they all handle it differently. There’s no overarching decision maker there. So you're dealing with a superintendent who may consider it a priority, or not. Schools just seem to have a difficult time making the right decision.
LD: Sexual abuse litigation is only about half of the work you do at the firm, correct? The other half is personal injury. This strikes me as a unique set-up. Do the practices dovetail into one another?
DR: You’re right, it is very unusual that a firm can do both. It works with us because my long-time law partner, John Taylor, is one of the greatest trial lawyers around, and has tried a million personal injury cases. When we joined forces that is exactly what we wanted to do, we wanted to do half and half. He brought the personal injury cases and experience to the table, and I brought these sexual abuse cases to the table. Now we cross over all the time. He's handled some huge sexual abuse cases. I've handled some huge personal injury cases. It's great, and you learn a lot trying a personal injury type of case, that really helps you try a sexual abuse case.
The dynamics in the courtroom are different, but it's still a jury trial, and your ultimate goal is to have the jury find in your favor and award the victim a lot of compensation that they deserve. So the goal is the same in both. Really, it's a great setup. The lawyers that work here really enjoy it, because they aren't just doing the same type of case over and over again.
There's only a few firms in California that handle sexual abuse cases. With the really unique cases, you've got to be very careful how you handle them, because these victims, they require a lot of support during the litigation. If you're the type of firm that you talk to your client once every few months, you're doing them a disservice. It's so personal to them, it's so anxiety-ridden, and it's not a car accident. It's horrific stuff. With those cases there's a lot more client interaction throughout the entire case, because that’s super important.
LD: How’s it been for your firm working through the pandemic?
NW: We’ve been remote like everyone else, but last month we opened up our offices as an option for people. I think we all like to come into the office, during the day. We only have about half the staff here. If anyone wants to stay home, they can stay home. But we keep the office open for people to come in when they want, and have a quiet space to work.
DR: No one has to come in, but people want to come in because it breaks up the monotony.
LD: An office actually sounds really lovely right now. Does it look like you guys might be handling any remote trials?
NW: Yes, in fact we’re going to have our first fully remote trial in October. It's going to be really interesting. The court wants you to host it all, on your own. Logistically, it's going to be, probably a nightmare. But, it needs to happen. We can't just wait another year, or however long it's going to take. This is on a case that we've had for a couple of years, and we were all teed up to start trial right before the California shutdown happened. Back in March, we had everything ready. We were starting our first day of trial, and then, the governor's order came down and it all just stopped. I don't know how the remote trial is going to work exactly, especially with jury selection, but we'll find out.
LD: The work your firm does is really a public good in and of itself. But are you also involved in any charitable or pro bono works?
NW: The firm as a whole supports a lot of local rape treatment centers. Sometimes they have cases they want us to help with, or completely pro bono issues that they want us to take on. We do that.
The firm is great. I can take any case I want, and work on it for money or for free. If there was a case that I felt really passionate about, and it's happened before, where I went to my partners and said, "Hey, I want to do this. Probably not going to make a lot of money, but it's really important." Or, "We're not going to make any money at all, but this is a person who needs help." They'll allow me to do that, and they'll fund it. There have been a couple of cases, here and there, where it was a survivor who was really out of options. Maybe the police didn't want to take the case, or they weren't finding any sort of representation. If there's some small way to help and we have the time and we have the resources, we'll always help.
DR: The lawyers here do a lot of writing on these subjects, and I give a lot of speeches, mostly for other lawyers who want to do these types of cases. We’re also really involved with organizations that help victims, whether it's volunteering our time or contributing financially. There's some really great organizations in Los Angeles that are there for victims, when they first come forward and disclose, like rape crisis centers as Natalie mentioned. We're really supportive of those places.
LD: How would you both describe your styles as litigators?
NW: I just try to be myself. I think that sometimes, lawyers can go into court and they change their voice, or they change the way that they speak. They try and put on some sort of facade. But for me, I just want to walk into court and be exactly who I am outside of court, inside of court. I think jurors relate to that. You want to speak to them in a language that they understand. The language I understand is, how I speak to my friends and my family. So I try to bring that into court.
DR: The thing that's incredibly important to me is we play by the rules, we're incredibly ethical. We never do anything underhanded, and I think jurors sense that. They sense the credibility that the lawyers here have in a courtroom. That said, we're tough. I mean, we're tough. We don't back down, but we’re always professional. I tell this to young lawyers all the time: You can be professional and still be tough. You don't have to be a jerk to be tough. You can be reasonable and ethical, but you can still be tough, and that's what people expect. These clients want a tough lawyer. They want someone who fights for them, and I always do that. I think it's real hard to win if you're not banging some heads on the other side. I think if you're nice in litigation you're going to get steamrolled.
Let's face it, most jurors do not want to be down at the courthouse, being summoned to jury duty. They're not happy that they're there. Then all of a sudden, those 50 juror candidates come into the room, and the judge reads a short statement of the case. I'm telling you, the second they hear what the case is about, that some kid got sexually abused and we're alleging the school's at fault, and the school said they didn't do anything wrong — they all come to attention, and they all want to sit on that jury. They're fascinated by it, and they want to do right, and they want to be there.
So I never pander. I never pander to the jurors. I'm definitely passionate, but jurors want information quick, especially nowadays. They don't want to be bored. They don't want you to waste their time, and so we really focus on putting the case on quick, and making it interesting. Every fact is not created equal. You put on the major facts and you hustle through witnesses, and you don't bore the crap out of the jury, and you don't object to every question the defense is asking. You get the case done quickly, and you get it to the jury so they can decide the outcome.
LD: Dave, is there a case that stands out for you as particularly memorable from throughout your career?
DR: There’s one that took place in 2013, so before #MeToo. It had been 10 years since the Catholic Church cases were really in the news, so there hadn't been a lot in the media on sexual abuse of late. It was one of these cases where you have a teacher manipulating a 16-year-old girl. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people in the world who look at a case like that and say, “Well, hey, she's 16.” The defense attorney and the school district really took a super aggressive defense to the case. Blamed the parents, blamed the girl. I mean, just scorched the Earth on the defense, really put them through the ringer.
LD: Like, what was she was wearing and how she was acting, all that kind of stuff?
DR: Yep, blame the victim. Blame the victim defense. Blame the parents. "She's not harmed, she wanted it." It’s truly outrageous to me, but some jurors might think like that.
They offered next to nothing, and it went to trial in a very conservative jurisdiction. It was a very hard-fought trial. They were just as nasty in trial as they were during the course of the case. I was truly worried. I thought, are these jurors buying this? That it's this girl's fault, and the parents' fault? I was concerned, because they were just going hard.
The jury, they didn't buy it. They found for this girl and they were pissed off at the school district, and really pissed off at the aggressive tactics of the school district. That really told me that we're doing the right thing on how we put these cases on. The jurors, they see through the smoke screen of the defense trying to blame the teenage girl for what happened with the creepy, manipulative, 40-year-old teacher who totally took advantage of her.
LD: I’m so glad the jury was able to see that, especially back then.
DR: These days, jurors walk into the courtroom and they already get it. They just get it, not like before. It angers them. The cases that go to trial or the ones where the school did something. They knew. They knew, or they absolutely should have known. They had a ton of red flags, and they ignored it, and that's what really pisses off jurors.
LD: Are you noticing that some of these schools and institutions are pushing for settlements more or wanting to avoid trial now, in a way that they weren't before?
DR: It's difficult to say. I've been doing this so many years, they know I'll go to trial. I'm not an unknown quantity to them. Two years ago I took a case to trial, and we got a $45M verdict.
LD: Oh wow. What was the case?
DR: The victim was a girl that was horribly abused. She had been abused when she was eight or nine years old really, and it was really bad, truly horrific. She was 15 at the time of the trial.
It was a milestone case for me, because I knew that we were going to win the case, and I knew this girl had been seriously harmed. But I truly had no clue how much they were going to award this girl. They could've awarded her $2M. For them to award her that amount of money was really gratifying, because it was a clear signal that they appreciated the incredible amount of harm she went through, and that she is going to go through the rest of her life.
That was really gratifying, hearing that jury verdict, because these cases are never about what we call economic damages. There are no lost wages, and therapy bills are very modest. The jury is awarding money for emotional distress. There's no formula for that. They're not given any instructions on how to do that, and they really have to rely on the lawyer in the closing argument to say, "Here's how you compensate her for her emotional harm." They got it, and so that was really gratifying.