It started off as one lawsuit, filed late on a Tuesday night, alleging that Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson had purposely touched a female massage therapist with his genitals during a massage session nearly one year earlier.
One week later, there were 16 lawsuits – all of them alleging sexual misconduct by Watson during separate massage sessions, on separate dates, in seemingly distinct locations. Two of the lawsuits also include claims of sexual assault.
And the civil complaints, legal experts say, are now just part of the equation.
“I think that Deshaun Watson’s in a bit of trouble here,” said Meredith Duncan, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. “This isn’t going to go away any time soon for him, and I certainly don’t think that there’s ‘nothing there’ just because criminal charges haven’t been filed.”
Watson, 25, has broadly denied wrongdoing and said he’s always treated women with respect. His attorney, Rusty Hardin, has said he believes the allegations against Watson are “meritless” and that one of the plaintiffs tried to blackmail the quarterback.
Yet between the 16 civil complaints, an ongoing NFL investigation and the lingering possibility of criminal charges, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this matter won’t be resolved quickly.
USA TODAY Sports spoke with legal experts – including attorneys who are not involved in Watson’s case, but specialize in sexual assault litigation – about some of the notable facets of the lawsuits, and what might come next.
Civil vs. criminal
Houston-based attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents all 16 of the women, has said that none of his clients previously reported the incidents to police. He also said his team planned to provide evidence to Houston police and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office about the allegations.
Buzbee has not replied to email inquiries this week about whether that has occurred. Spokespeople for the Houston Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office have indicated they will not discuss any investigations until or unless charges are filed.
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Some of Watson’s defenders have pointed to the means in which the allegations emerged – civil lawsuits, rather than criminal charges – as evidence in his favor. But experts note that most victims of sexual misconduct or assault never report them. According to statistics compiled by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only about 23% of sexual assaults are ever reported to police.
John Clune, an attorney at the law firm Hutchinson, Black and Cook, said that victims of sexual assault sometimes prefer to file a civil lawsuit because of the control it provides. In a criminal case, he and others noted, the victim is only able to file a report. It is ultimately up to police to investigate the alleged incident, and the district attorney to decide whether to press charges.
“(In) the civil case, you have a lot more control over the direction of the case,” said Clune, who has previously represented victims of sexual assault in high-profile cases against athletes. “For a survivor of sexual abuse, which is a crime that’s all about power and control, a lot of time that civil action feels safer to them.”
Civil and criminal trials also have different evidentiary burdens. In a criminal trial, the jury must be convinced that a crime occurred beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas in civil court, it must only determine that it is more likely than not the plaintiff’s claim is true.
Anonymity and evidence
Some of the lawsuits mention specific communication between Watson and the women – such as Instagram and text messages – without providing a full or partial transcript of those conversations. Experts say that is normal in state lawsuits, where the plaintiff is only required to notify the other party of general issues and claims in the case.
Anonymity is another key feature in the lawsuits, as all of the women have made allegations against Watson under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.”
Hardin has argued that anonymity has its limits. He criticized his counterpart, Buzbee, for declining to reveal the women’s names privately, which would allow Watson’s team to more fully investigate their claims.
“Anonymity is often necessary as a shield for victims,” Hardin said in a statement, “but opposing counsel has used it as a sword to publicly humiliate Deshaun before the truth‑seeking process can even begin.”
Experts say the “sword” and “shield” rhetoric regarding anonymity is common in litigation like this. But Steve Kelly, a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and co-chair of the law firm’s criminal/sexual violence practice group, noted that there are valid reasons for keeping the identities of the victims private in the early stages of a case – even from opposing lawyers. He said some defense attorneys, particularly in high-profile cases, will hire aggressive investigators to look into the plaintiffs’ background.
“If I were in Tony Buzbee’s position, one of the things that I would be concerned about would be victim intimidation,” Kelly said.
Why number of lawsuits matters
Though the 16 lawsuits that have been filed against Watson contain similar facts and allege similar conduct, experts cautioned that each lawsuit will ultimately be considered on its own merits, because each one is based on separate and distinct facts.
The volume of lawsuits and allegations, however, does matter in terms of perception.
“I can’t speak to the truth of the allegations, but there’s power in numbers,” Kelly said. “Again, when you have multiple people coming and saying the same thing, it tends to render credibility to those actions.”
Duncan, the Houston professor, added that she believes the unique factual differences in each allegation “may lend more to the credibility of each individual woman.”
Buzbee said in a news conference that, when the first woman filed a lawsuit last week, his firm had only spoken with two women about claims against Watson. He has since filed lawsuits on behalf of 15 others, and said he has spoken with at least six others.
Clune said if the alleged incidents happened as stated in the lawsuits, it would make sense that some of the victims would feel more comfortable coming forward after learning that their experience was not an isolated incident. He also said that while the process of vetting potential plaintiffs might appear rushed, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t done legitimately.”
“There could be small little details that aren’t even reported in the media,” Clune said, “where you get the clear impression that ‘this would be an odd thing for somebody to be able to fabricate in a way that perfectly lines up with our five other clients.’ “
While the majority of civil cases are settled before trial, it is immediately unclear whether Watson and Hardin will go that route in any or all of these cases, given the stakes.
Settlements would likely include non-disclosure agreements, which would prevent more details about the alleged incidents from emerging. But Watson could instead decide to take the lawsuits to trial – which would draw out the process but give him the chance to more completely clear his name.
“Deshaun Watson has a lot to (lose) – and I’m not just talking about whatever money judgement would be against him,” Duncan said. “He has his career in the NFL, his reputation, to protect.”
Then there’s the question of whether Watson might face criminal charges. Some of the acts, as alleged in the lawsuits, could meet the criteria for indecent assault under Texas law. And Duncan said one of the allegations – that Watson forced a woman to perform oral sex – could possibly be classified as a felony.
“By no means is (Watson) in the clear from criminal charges,” said Clune, who is also a former prosecutor. “If the prosecutor’s office decided that ‘look this is a serial predator and we think we can prove it,’ then they’re going to go after him.”
Clune pointed out that a potential criminal investigation could occur regardless of how the civil lawsuits are resolved. The same is true for the NFL’s ongoing investigation, as the league has previously suspended athletes for violating its personal conduct policy even in the absence of criminal charges or a civil judgment.
“From my experience with the NFL, more recently, they do take these allegations very seriously and they’re going to do a very serious investigation,” Clune said. “I think that’s also something that Mr. Watson should be concerned about. There could be significant consequences from the league.”
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.