For survivors of sexual assault, a prolonged legal battle often means reliving your trauma, over and over. From interacting with insensitive lawyers to recounting painful memories in front of strangers, going through the justice system can create uncertainty, feelings of revictimization and vulnerability—all of which can be triggering for survivors of sexual assault.
Even after a survivor wins a settlement, the barrage of new decisions that need to be made about how to handle the money can be overwhelming. Usually, plaintiffs receive a settlement award as a lump sum, which can amount to millions of dollars.
Emotionally processing the outcome of a legal battle on top of deciding how to spend such a huge sum of money can be a taxing process for survivors. To help ease the burden of those difficulties, Milestone Consulting, LLC created “The Settlement Account”—the first national qualified settlement fund solely for survivors of sexual assault.
At its core, The Settlement Account empowers survivors who’ve won a settlement to explore their options by spreading out the settlement payments over a longer, fixed period of time.
Sam Dolce, attorney and national settlement consultant at Milestone, told Ms. the need for a national qualified settlement fund solely for survivors had been “bubbling for years,” but the catalyst for its creation stemmed from Milestone’s work with Kim Dougherty, managing partner at Andrus Wagstaff law firm, on the Larry Nassar sexual abuse cases.
“We had utilized this process with [Milestone] in the past with the [Michigan State Nassar Abuse cases]… and I think after seeing how well it worked for our prior clients, Milestone really thought ‘how can we capitalize on this to help people everywhere across the country?’” Dougherty said.
Perhaps most importantly, The Settlement Account was designed using the principles of trauma-informed care: safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment.
For instance, the fund’s generic name was chosen deliberately—it’s not uncommon for survivors to keep their case a secret from even their closest friends and family. The generic name helps maintain confidentiality because, for example, when a survivor receives a check in the mail from “The Settlement Account,” they can tell their family members they were involved in a car accident or class-action lawsuit at work.
Ensuring survivors’ confidentiality is just one example of how The Settlement Account is designed to benefit survivors. According to Dolce, Milestone’s team is “intentional through every part of the process to ensure that people’s stories are honored, [including] when and how they want to share them.”
In addition to creating The Settlement Account, Milestone is working with Dr. Laura McGuire, a nationally recognized trauma-informed specialist, to create continuing legal education (CLE) courses on trauma-informed care for lawyers and settlement planners. In the personal injury industry, it’s common practice for lawyers and attorneys to immediately ask a client about their personal injury and how it happened. But for a client experiencing trauma, immediately being asked invasive questions by a stranger can be a source of retraumatization.
Milestone’s CLE courses help to solve this problem by instructing lawyers and settlement planners on how to recognize signs of trauma and improve their interpersonal communication skills and client relations. Through active listening and open communication, lawyers can establish trust with their clients, which in turn helps the client make better, more informed decisions. Importantly, these courses are routinely updated as research psychologists continue to understand the impact of trauma and the neuropsychology behind it.
Not every client needs a structured settlement fund, but Dolce explained it will help “those who want to sit down with somebody who is an expert in this field and figure out what they’re going to do with their settlement.” Additionally, The Settlement Account offers a model that could work for other types of personal injury cases, such as cases of police misconduct.
Milestone’s hope is that The Settlement Account will help improve long-term physical and mental outcomes for survivors of sexual assault.
Ultimately, Dolce says, “The reason why we’re doing this is to benefit people.”
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