By Emily Jackoway | January 23, 2023
It takes a courageous and determined lawyer to fully devote their practice to championing victims of sexual abuse. Victims and their attorneys are often subject to a host of constraints, from victim-blaming to statutes of limitations to the challenge of taking on institutions with significant financial backing. In spite of – or perhaps because of – the limitations, Natalie Weatherford is one of those lawyers.
Weatherford is a partner at Los Angeles-based Taylor & Ring, a firm well-known for its track record in sexual abuse cases. That reputation is what first drew Weatherford to the firm; her position there was her first job out of law school. She felt personal injury practice and specifically sexual abuse litigation was her calling from the start: “Helping people who have been victimized, either children or adults, seemed very fulfilling – like a good thing to dedicate your life to,” she says. While she initially litigated personal injury cases of all kinds, over the years, Weatherford’s focus has shifted to almost exclusively sexual abuse cases.
An overwhelming number of the cases Weatherford takes on involve abuse that occurred in schools. Recently, Weatherford represented a victim who was abused by her band instructor over a period of three years – beginning when she was in just seventh grade. Several years later, the teacher was finally arrested at the school. Weatherford and her co-counsel, who represented a second victim, sued the school district. In March of 2022, the jury returned a verdict of $102.5M for the two plaintiffs.
Weatherford’s sole commitment to justice for victims means this is far from her only remarkable result in the practice area: In one case, she secured the largest amount per victim ever paid by a school district in the country, at $7M per plaintiff. Another litigation’s result led to updating laws surrounding consent evidence for minors in California.
While many of the victims Weatherford represents were abused as children, she takes on clients who were abused at any point in life. In 2021, Weatherford and partner John Taylor represented a female truck driver who was sexually assaulted by her co-driver while on the job. When the driver alerted the company, CRST International, to the assault, the male co-driver denied the allegations – and the company allowed him to continue working. Weatherford’s client, traumatized by the attack, was forced to abandon her career. The company left her only with a bill for her job training. She took legal action, and the case settled for $5M.
The courage it takes to hold those responsible accountable, as demonstrated by the truck driver, is representative of why Weatherford continues to be inspired by this work. “The bravery that it takes for victims to come forward always impresses me,” she says.
Lawdragon: From starting to work in the sexual abuse practice area to now, what have been the biggest surprises? Has anything shifted?
Natalie Weatherford: The most surprising thing is the way that the victims are treated in a lawsuit – and not in a good way. I feel like we’ve moved past victim-blaming more as a society, but it’s still present in civil and criminal litigation.
In criminal and civil litigation for victims of sexual abuse, there are a lot of attempts to embarrass the victim or make them feel bad about the abuse. They're put through so much. No matter what laws get passed or how good you are at representing the victim, they're still going to be put through some really difficult litigation.
LD: So, you’re still seeing those victim-blaming tactics from the defense?
NW: Yes. They're getting a little bit better at disguising the victim-blaming tactics, but they're all still there, and some of them are even more blatant than before.
LD: In what way?
NW: For example, I have a case right now where my client is a victim of sexual abuse. The defense brought in her ex-boyfriend whom she had a restraining order against. It has nothing to do with the abuse she suffered, but they dig into the most embarrassing and damaging parts of the victim's life just to try and discourage them from going forward with the lawsuit.
LD: That's awful.
If you’re still noticing these kinds of tactics on the defense side, what about jurors – are you seeing recent cultural events affect their attitudes toward these cases?
NW: Jurors are valuing the impact that sexual abuse has on a victim, and they're seeing that it can last your entire life. And it’s true. That's something that medical professionals and us lawyers and victim advocates have always said, but now I hear it echo through the jurors. So, that's very important, especially for jury verdicts when they're considering what kind of award to make for the victim. They're giving higher awards because they understand that this leaves an imprint on a person for their whole life.
LD: Speaking of jury trials, tell me a bit about your recent case against Union School District, which yielded a $102.5M verdict for your client and your co-counsel’s client.
NW: That case has left a pretty significant imprint on me. It was a hard-fought, three-year litigation.
We represented women who, as middle school girls, were sexually abused by their band teacher at Dartmouth Middle School in San Jose. I represented Jane Doe 2, who was one of the first victims of the perpetrator.
The perpetrator began grooming girls right when he got hired at the school. Right away, the school received complaints that he was text messaging middle school girls late at night about things that weren't related to school. A mother brought in text messages between this 28-year-old teacher and her 12-year-old daughter.
The school, instead of firing the guy, which they could absolutely have done – he was just a probationary teacher, he wasn't tenured, they had no legal connection that required them to do anything – instead did a confidential investigation into the text messages to determine if they were sexual harassment. The outcome of their investigation was that he didn't sexually harass the girls. So, he kept his job and went on to sexually abuse my plaintiff. Then, he went on to sexually abuse Jane Doe 1, three years after my plaintiff. It wasn't stopped until Jane Doe 1 reported him to the police, and he was arrested on the school campus.
Jurors are valuing the impact that sexual abuse has on a victim, and they're seeing that it can last your entire life.
LD: And your client was in his class his first year of teaching, when she was in seventh grade?
NW: Yes. There were two years of him grooming and doing less severe abuse to my plaintiff. And then right before his third year as a teacher, this parent brought forward the text messages and the investigation was performed. After that, the most significant abuse of my plaintiff began, when she was in ninth grade. He invited her back onto the campus to volunteer for the band program, and that's when he began abusing her in his classroom.
LD: What was so impactful to you about this case?
NW: This is a case where the plaintiffs – both of them – were significantly injured and impacted by this abuse. Your middle school years are such formative years for growing up, understanding yourself, developing your sexuality. So, when you're abused during those years, it is significantly impactful.
Now we're on appeal with the district, and they're still making the same arguments, even though the evidence of what the school knew about this perpetrator before he ever abused my client was just overwhelming. It was a San Jose jury, so a lot of engineers and very factual people. After they gave their verdict, we talked to all of them, and they said, "This school knew a lot. They did nothing with what they knew. They violated the law and the plaintiffs were incredibly damaged by the abuse." So, that's where our award comes from.
LD: Where are you in the appeal process?
NW: The very beginning. It'll probably be a couple years.
LD: Tell me about working with your co-counsel, Lauren Cerri of Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard.
NW: It was amazing. It was great to be able to try this case with another female lawyer. That doesn't happen very often, where you have a trial team of only women. I consider her a really good friend now, and I respect her so much.
LD: I know you primarily work on cases involving sexual abuse of minors, but you’ve also had clients who were abused as adults. How is it different working on cases involving minors versus adults?
NW: Those cases are very different than the ones involving children, because in the adult cases, the defense is allowed to argue consent. It is very difficult and embarrassing for the victim because you have to prove that the sexual assault occurred, and then you have to also prove that they didn't participate in it. Then, the plaintiff's entire sex life can become part of the litigation.
But there are ways to protect adult victims of sexual abuse. I do my best to make sure that the litigation is as low impact as possible. Just because you’ve been sexually abused as an adult doesn't mean that you have any less right to bring your lawsuit than a child victim does.
LD: Absolutely. Then, on many occasions, you’re representing adults who were abused as children. The statute of limitations was lifted in California at the start of 2020 for a three-year window, which allowed you to bring a number of cases in the last couple of years that would have been off-limits before. How can other states follow suit in better protecting victims, and what further steps would you like to see California take?
NW: Other states should do what California did by opening a window for the statute of limitations or eliminating the statute of limitations altogether for these types of cases.
The impact this abuse has on your brain, psychologically, means that you either blame yourself or you tuck away the abuse. It's a coping mechanism to just ignore what happened. I get a lot of victims who don't come forward until they’re in their forties who were victimized when they were children, because that's the point in their life where they're finally feeling safe and comfortable to talk about what happened.
In California, I think we've made some steps, but there are still significant limitations for childhood victims of sexual abuse. Since the window closed at the end of 2022, you now have up until the age of 40 to come forward. Some states have completely eliminated the statute of limitations for sexual abuse, and I think that's something we should do.
Your middle school years are such formative years for growing up, understanding yourself, developing your sexuality. So, when you're abused during those years, it is significantly impactful.
LD: It must be heartbreaking to have to tell people, "I'm sorry, but the window's closed."
NW: Yes, because they blame themselves, and it continues the cycle. With this window being open, I've handled a lot of cases where adults who felt like they didn't do the right thing when they were children were able to bring their lawsuits, to confront the perpetrator and the institution that failed to protect them and get justice from that. It's an incredibly healing and profound process.
LD: What advice would you give to an early-career attorney who wants to focus their practice on sexual abuse?
NW: Get in the courtroom as much as you can. I still get nervous when I go into court for anything, so nerves are totally normal. If you're not nervous, it means you don't care. So, just go in as much as you can and develop your skills. You’re never going to feel like you are some amazing lawyer in the courtroom. You're always going to question yourself. Those are all normal feelings. Just do your best when you get in the courtroom.
LD: Looking ahead, how do you see your career developing from here? Do you want to keep doing the same thing you're doing, fighting for individual plaintiffs?
NW: Yes, I just want to keep, hopefully, doing exactly this: representing victims in courtrooms in California. It’s been really fulfilling.