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What to Know About the Lawsuits Against Deshaun Watson

todayMarch 20, 2021 8 1

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Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is the subject of seven civil suits filed in mid-March which accuse him of sexual assault. He was not charged criminally. Here’s where the cases stand:

Deshaun Watson, 25, is a star quarterback for the Houston Texans, one of the best in the N.F.L. at his position.

In September 2020, he signed a four-year contract extension worth nearly $111 million guaranteed, tying him to the Texans through 2025. But Watson, disenchanted by the team’s poor personnel moves and failure to uphold a pledge to include him in the search process for a new coach and general manager, has requested a trade. Watson has a no-trade clause, so he can choose his next destination. But the Texans stressed in January that they have no intention of trading him, creating an impasse for more than two months.

In the past year, Watson grew into a leading voice among Black players who have protested against racial injustice and police brutality. During the 2020 off-season, he took part in a player-led video that urged the league to support protests by players, and after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, Watson marched with his family — Floyd grew up in Houston — in a downtown protest.

Seven women have accused Watson of assaults in civil lawsuits filed in Harris County, Texas. The lawyer representing them, Tony Buzbee, said as many as 15 other women have echoed claims of sexual misconduct and coercive behavior against Watson.

Although the seven suits filed to date share many similarities, only one — in which Watson was said to have pressured a woman to perform oral sex during a massage — includes a claim of sexual assault, though all allege that Watson coerced the women to touch him in a sexual manner. All the suits accuse Watson of a pattern of lewd behavior in incidents that occurred from March to December 2020: exposing himself to women he had hired for massages; ordering the women to massage sensitive areas like the groin and inner thigh; and moving his body in ways that forced them to touch his penis.

Meredith J. Duncan, who teaches tort law and criminal law at the University of Houston Law Center, defined civil assault as intentionally or knowingly touching someone in a way that a reasonable person would regard as offensive.

“It just so happens in this case, the civil assault involves his genitals,” Duncan said. “But forcing another person to perform a sexual act, that’s a more aggravated form of sexual assault.”

Watson hasn’t commented publicly since the night of March 16, when the first complaint was filed. He said on Twitter that he had “never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect” and that he had rejected “a baseless six-figure settlement demand” made by Buzbee before the first suit was filed.

Rusty Hardin, who represents Watson, issued a statement on March 19 calling the allegations against his client “meritless.” That same day, Watson’s agent, David Mulugheta, publicly defended his client in social media posts.

The Houston Police Department said in a statement March 19 that it was “unaware of any contact between HPD and Houston attorney Tony Buzbee regarding the allegations contained in his recently filed lawsuits and no incident reports regarding these allegations have been filed in our jurisdiction.”

The league opened an investigation into Watson’s conduct on March 18. In a letter addressed to Buzbee, Lisa Friel, a special counsel for investigations at the league, requested the cooperation of the accusers. A league spokesman said the matter was under review in relation to the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy. That policy governs off-field behavior involving players and coaches.

The Texans said in a statement the same day that they would “continue to take this and all matters involving anyone within the Houston Texans organization seriously” and that the team would not comment further until the league’s investigation had ended, a process with no public timeline.

Tony Buzbee is a Houston plaintiffs lawyer who has worked on personal injury cases for years but is perhaps most well-known for his involvement in mass tort and class action cases, including the litigation following Hurricane Ike and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago. He doesn’t appear to have represented many women in cases involving sexual assault.

A former marine, Buzbee flaunts his outsize personality and wealth on social media. The first two words on the website for Buzbee’s law firm are “Just Win” and he sports a tattoo of a shark on his right forearm.

Although he has said he does not support the Texans, Buzbee, a Texas A&M graduate, in 2014 put up 10 billboards urging the team’s now-deceased owner Bob McNair to draft Johnny Manziel, an Aggies quarterback; McNair didn’t take his advice. Buzbee lives on the same tony Houston street as Texans chairman Cal McNair, but said in a news conference that he does not know McNair. Buzbee also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Houston in 2019.

A former Texas state prosecutor who became a defense lawyer, Rusty Hardin has represented numerous prominent clients, from star athletes to the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the Enron scandal. He also worked in the independent counsel’s office in the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration.

Among the athletes he has defended are the pitcher Roger Clemens, against perjury charges in 2012; the N.F.L. running back Adrian Peterson, who was accused of felony child abuse in 2014; and the N.B.A. star James Harden, who was accused in 2017 of paying four people to attack and rob Moses Malone, Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame N.B.A. player.

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