The Chicago Blackhawks’ General Manager has stepped aside and the NHL fined the team $2 million as a result of an independent investigation which found that the organization failed to follow its policy after it became aware of a claim of sexual assault in May 2010. NHL fans may make the connection that the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in May 2010. Now, eleven years later, a civil suit has been filed by a former player for the Blackhawks alleging that he complained during the playoffs that a coach subjected him to nonconsensual sexual acts.
After the lawsuit was filed in May 2021, the Blackhawks engaged an independent investigating authority to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the allegations made by the former player, at what time the organization became aware of the allegations, and the conduct of the organization after it became aware of the allegations.
There were reported significant difficulties in investigating the underlying allegations from eleven years earlier. As the investigative report indicated, witnesses’ memories had faded, and there was a dearth of physical or corroborating evidence given that surveillance from eleven years ago was no longer available and text messages which may have corroborated witness accounts also largely were unavailable. While the independent investigators interviewed over 130 witnesses, they did not come to any conclusion regarding the substance of the allegations made by the former player. However, what was clear to the investigator was that the organization became aware of the allegations during the playoffs in May of 2010 and chose to put off dealing with an investigation and any potential fallout until after the playoffs had concluded. This was despite a policy which required a prompt investigation into such allegations. Even after the playoffs were concluded, the organization never conducted an investigation into the allegations; instead, it allowed the coach to resign from his position.
As a practical result, the organization may have limited ability to defend itself against the substance of the claims by the former player. The substantive allegations will play out in litigation as a contest of credibility between the former player and the former coach who chose to resign in the face of the allegations.
Employers should take a lesson from this scenario. While the investigation, if conducted back in 2010, may have revealed that the sexual assault did occur, the organization would have been armed with that information and able to take appropriate action to protect it from additional liability. On the flip side, an investigation back in 2010 may well have demonstrated that any sexual contact between the former player and the former coach was consensual and/or not in violation of the organization’s policies. In short, a timely investigation would have armed the organization with information it needed to act in accordance with its best interests.
Those in upper management of the Blackhawks may have believed over the past eleven years that their mishandling of this situation was in the past; however, these types of scenarios can come back and haunt the decisionmakers and the organization as it seems to have here. As such, acting in accordance with policy to conduct a full and fair investigation, and hiring an independent investigator where appropriate, will always be in the best interests of the organization.
The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.