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'A Fire in Her to Protect the Victim'

Why Natalie Weatherford only takes sex abuse cases

Published in 2022 Southern California Rising Stars magazine

Photo by: Dustin Snipes

Ten years ago, when Natalie Weatherford began suing schools that failed to protect young girls from sexual abuse, she expected that her clients would be treated with a certain amount of care and respect by opposing counsel; that the trauma they suffered and their bravery in coming forward would be acknowledged.

She admits she was somewhat naïve.

“When I saw the defense attacking them, attacking their families, trying to blame the emotional injuries they had on other things—on their parents’ divorces, on them watching scary movies when they were little—I was like, ‘Holy shit, we have to do something here. I can’t believe this happens. I thought we got past this as a society.’”

That realization about the revictimization of survivors empowered her to not only win for her clients but protect them.

“I hate bullies,” says Weatherford, a partner at Taylor & Ring in Los Angeles, whose jury verdicts and settlements on behalf of sex abuse victims total more than $60 million. “Especially in depositions or in court, I take a protector role. I’m not going to just let some defense lawyer dig through their personal history or try to make them feel bad about the fact that they were abused. Because abuse is never their fault.”

Holly N. Boyer, an appellate attorney at Esner Chang & Boyer who also represents sex abuse victims and works with Weatherford on appeals, says some lawyers can lose sight of their client amid the legal issues. But Weatherford, she says, has a “fire in her to protect the victim” while documenting the ways others failed to do so.

“She tells the story of those children who have been unseen by the school districts, by the entities,” Boyer says. “She highlights the failure to protect [them]. She digs in to find out how this happened—how the school didn’t see the warning signs, how clearly it was in front of them, and how, for whatever reason, they looked the other way.

“As society accepts that sex abuse is as prevalent as it is, she’s shining a light on the damage it does and what these victims deserve.”

 

When Weatherford left the Bay Area to go to college, she lacked direction. She’d been working full-time since she was 14 but had no idea what she wanted in a career. At Cal State Long Beach, she switched majors three or four times, and after college she worked as a manager at high-end stores like Burberry and Bloomingdale’s. Turning toward the law was some mix of happenstance and common sense. “I just wanted a stable career,” she says. “I thought, ‘What’s a job that will always be around?’” 

At Southwestern, she tried entertainment law classes and interned for a civil defense firm. Nothing fit—until she had an internship with personal injury lawyer Ronald M. Papell. “That was the first job that really made sense,” she says. “You have one person who has an injury and who needs help, and you come in as the lawyer and fight for that single person. … It seemed like a good life’s purpose.”

As she neared the end of law school, she began researching firms and became interested in Taylor & Ring because of its focus on sex abuse cases.

“We weren’t even looking to hire,” recalls David M. Ring. But he received the most glowing recommendation letter he’d ever read and decided he needed to interview the candidate. A few years later, over beers, Weatherford admitted that, with the signer’s blessing, she’d actually written the letter herself.

“That’s why she’s great,” Ring says. “It shows initiative and risk-taking. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to get a job. She believes in herself. She knew she wanted to represent victims of abuse, and she’s been absolutely amazing. She’s compassionate with them but at the same time confident. … It’s one thing to be compassionate; you also want someone who is going to kick some butt.”

Early in Weatherford’s tenure, Ring remembers receiving a phone call from a defense firm, asking if he could tell her to back off a little. Basically they had tried to take advantage of her inexperience, asking improper questions at depositions, and failed.

“Defense lawyers make the deposition as uncomfortable as possible as a way to intimidate the plaintiff out of wanting to pursue the litigation further, and Natalie is extremely good at knowing what is fair and how to control the questioning so the client has the confidence and courage to continue,” says John C. Taylor, Weatherford’s mentor and co-lead in several multimillion-dollar cases. “She’s tried as many sex abuse and molestation cases as anyone in the state of California. She knows this area of law so well and it’s such an advantage—and that’s coupled with a tremendous empathy for our clients. She’s got this ability to relate to them and then communicate the damage that’s been done and how it manifests in a victim’s life.”

Those strengths came into play in Taylor and Weatherford’s 2018 case against Scott Durzo and the Westerly School of Long Beach—an unusual case because the plaintiff was suing a school he hadn’t attended.

Durzo owned a youth sports camp that the plaintiff, Stephen W., attended when he was 8 years old. Weatherford says that Durzo spent years grooming him, acting as a mentor, and began sexually abusing Stephen at age 13. Two years later, Durzo was hired to run Westerly’s after-school program and brought 15-year-old Stephen with him to the K-8 school as an employee. Stephen, who went to his regular school online, was allowed to spend his days on the Westerly campus, working on his classes from the library and as a recess supervisor for the school.

Taylor and Weatherford were confident the law was on their side—that even though Stephen was never enrolled at Westerly, the school still had a legal obligation to supervise and protect him that it failed to fulfill, just as it failed to properly train employees to report their suspicions. Still, they were concerned that the jury might be prejudiced against a male victim abused in his teens. 

Stephen shared those worries. “Throughout the whole case, he was saying, ‘This is never going to work out. They’re never going to believe me. I waited too long. I should have said something,’” Weatherford remembers. “So even after all that time, after therapy and the police arresting the perpetrator, he still felt like no one was going to believe him.”

At the time, Stephen was living out of state and struggling with drug addiction, causing him to miss important court appointments. It was Weatherford who gained his trust and got him the help he needed to continue with the litigation. She even picked him up from rehab to come to trial; and when he took the stand, she was the one tapped to examine him.

“It’s really hard, when you put someone on who’s been hurt, for them to talk about it without sounding like they’re feeling sorry for themselves, or making the jury feel uncomfortable, or that you’re exploiting them,” Taylor says. “To walk that line takes skill. You want the jury to fully understand the damage. … She’s very good at that.”

Ring says when he works on a case with Weatherford, she maps a meticulous plan for getting from point A to B that juries appreciate. “As we get closer to trial, I’ll say, ‘Let’s see what you got,’ and she’ll lay out the whole case in front of me and boom, there it is. She’s gotten all the key documents, which they didn’t just give to her. She had to battle for them.”

In the Stephen W. case, that included the testimony of the school employee who quickly suspected that Durzo—her supervisor—was abusing Stephen but didn’t know what to do. In the end, the case resulted in a $25 million jury verdict.

“I think she has an instinct for where to look and where to find that smoking gun,” Boyer says. “She will track down texts or email exchanges that really tell the story of what was going on … and why this perpetrator was able to molest this child.”

Those smoking guns often tell the stories of her cases.

In one of Weatherford’s first trials, Antonia M v. Pomona Unified School District, it was a file on the principal’s computer documenting her suspicions about an eighth grade teacher. “She was keeping her own personal notes about this perpetrator, about weird things that she saw him do, specifically related to my plaintiff, and she never reported or did anything about it,” Weatherford says. “That went on for years.” The case resulted in an $8 million verdict.

In an ongoing case against a San Jose school district, the smoking gun is the personal text messages middle school administrators knew their band teacher was sending young girls shortly after he got the job. The teacher abused multiple girls for nine years and is now serving a 56-year prison sentence. 

In another case, an elite private school testified that it had no knowledge that its track coach was taking the team on a trip to Nevada—a trip during which Weatherford’s client, a former foster child, was allegedly raped by the coach. “She’d been through so much, and she was just coming out of it. She gets this new family and great new school, and the first thing that ever happens to her at the school is the worst thing that ever happened in her whole life,” Weatherford says. “They’re a top-tier school with all of the credentials, and their supervision was just garbage. They claimed they had no idea this track trip was even happening, which defies logic. He’s your head coach, driving these kids to a meet in a school van, picking them up from school.

“They have all kinds of excuses for what happened,” she adds, “other than taking responsibility.”

 

Today, Weatherford takes only sex abuse cases; and while the majority of her trials fit the pattern of teachers or coaches grooming and abusing her clients while school staff look the other way, she’s also begun exposing wrongdoing in the trucking industry.

In 2021, she represented a woman who tried to pursue her dream of driving a truck in her 50s, and during training was allegedly raped by her lead driver during a cross-country trip. After she reported the attack, the company called the perpetrator to ask for his side of the story. When he denied it, saying the victim “wasn’t his type,” he was allowed to keep working. Meanwhile, the plaintiff found her career destroyed; she could no longer stomach being alone in a truck with a male driver, and since there were no women to pair her with, she was left with an $8,000 bill for her unfinished training. The case settled for $5 million.

Though Weatherford says there are industry changes like inward-facing cameras that could deter sexual abuse or substantiate claims, she’s not particularly optimistic about her cases inspiring those protections. Instead, she measures success in a much more singular way: helping one client at a time.

Which brings her back to Stephen W. 

She’d gotten to know him well and knew he looked at the lawsuit as his last shot of having a normal life. “That’s a huge part of sex abuse—where it’s not a violent rape by someone you don’t know, where you knew your perpetrator and were groomed,” Weatherford says. “Those victims blame themselves. A lot of my plaintiffs look at the case as the final word on whether this was their fault. I don’t take that lightly.”

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