Man With a Mission
Protecting children from sexual abuse—it's a calling for Robert Allard
Published in 2012 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
By June D. Bell on July 6, 2012
When a prospective client phoned Robert Allard in the summer of 2009, work was far from the attorney’s mind. He was in Syracuse, N.Y., 2,800 miles from his San Jose law office and in the thick of a summer visit to his in-laws’ home. Allard’s four young children were scampering around with twice as many of their cousins, and the house was noisy with chatter and laughter.
The voice on the other end of the line, however, was somber. Allard listened closely as the caller described how a San Jose swim coach had molested his teenage daughter. He was looking for an attorney to pursue a civil suit.
“The case immediately captured my attention,” says Allard, a founding partner at Corsiglia McMahon & Allard in San Jose. “The thought of someone having their first sexual experience with a coach they trusted … sickened me.”
That call redirected the course of Allard’s legal career. He had built a successful personal injury practice and secured multimillion-dollar settlements and arbitration awards, but he’d never handled a sexual abuse case.
Since then, Allard, 43, has shot to prominence as a litigator in child sexual abuse cases and an advocate for laws to prevent organizations from covering up assaults and protecting abusers. His proposed legislation for California includes banning confidential settlements in these cases and extending the statute of limitations for filing claims. “I don’t want to get metaphysical and say it was a calling, but I almost felt as if it was,” he says.
Allard’s mission sprang from his litigation against USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimmers and U.S. Olympic team hopefuls.
He sued USA Swimming in 2010, accusing the Colorado Springs-based organization of protecting pedophiles by covering up assaults and lacking a system to investigate complaints. Since filing that suit, Allard says he’s been contacted by at least 100 swimmers across the country who say they were abused as young, competitive athletes. He has three pending cases, two of them in Indiana courts.
“What started out as a little case against a little club mushroomed into a vast, wide-ranging case,” he says, “involving … dozens and dozens of other coaches across the country who are licensed by USA Swimming who’ve been [allegedly] molesting mostly little girls, and to some degree little boys, for decades.”
Allard is proud that, as a result of the spotlight he turned on the organization, USA Swimming revamped its child-protection policies in 2010. Enhanced background screenings of coaches now reveal arrests, criminal investigations and multiple complaints, even if they never resulted in convictions. Reporting suspected abuse became mandatory. USA Swimming did not respond to calls for comment, but executive director Chuck Wielgus told USA Today in 2010 that his organization began background screenings of coaches in 2006 and that the group’s code of conduct prohibits physical or sexual abuse.
The organization’s tougher new screening policies would have snared Andrew King, a former USA Swimming coach now serving a 40-year sentence after pleading guilty to molesting four Bay Area swimmers. One of them was the daughter of the man who contacted Allard. The attorney says the parents had filed at least two complaints with USA Swimming against King, but that the organization never confronted or investigated him.
Allard feels the time is right for California’s legislators to toughen oversight and screening of youth coaches. Public awareness of the issue is high, in part due to the sex-abuse scandal that last year rocked Penn State, and the claims of abuse leveled last fall by two former ball boys against Syracuse University’s assistant basketball coach.
The law he proposes would require private groups that work with children to appoint a designated employee to oversee any allegations of sexual abuse and have clear procedures for filing abuse complaints. The legislation also calls for a detailed background check on anyone who works with children and is employed by a group that uses publicly owned facilities.
It would bar confidential settlements in sexual abuse cases, so that they don’t get swept under the rug without the public’s knowledge. Finally, the legislation would give plaintiffs until age 35 to file child abuse claims. The age limit in California is currently 26, already one of the most liberal windows in the country; most states require such suits to be filed before the plaintiff turns 20, Allard says.
He says he expects some opposition from “big-business interests” but adds, “It would be difficult for opponents to fashion an argument that any of these four measures we are proposing are not appropriate.”
When Allard approached state Assemblyman Jim Beall for backing, the San Jose-area legislator agreed. Beall says the measure has strong support. “Everyone wants kids to be safe,” he says. “It should be a nonpartisan bill.”
Beall says he was impressed by Allard’s knowledge of shortcomings in existing laws. “He knew what he was talking about,” says Beall, who credits Allard with being “a great organizer and synthesizer.” The legislator hopes the bill will become law by late summer. Allard’s advocacy efforts earned him a 2012 CLAY Award for public interest from California Lawyer magazine.
The son and grandson of attorneys, Allard grew up in Saratoga. His grandfather, Bernard Emil Allard, was a plaintiff’s lawyer in Oakland. His father, Bernard James Allard, represented corporations as a litigator in Santa Clara County. Allard—officially Bernard Robert—graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1991 and received his law degree from the University of San Francisco’s School of Law in 1994. “There’s no question this is a family-inherited trait that I have, that I want to help people and advocate for people and advance the rights of others,” he says.
He joined his father’s practice and worked with him for a decade. When his father retired, Allard and a longtime colleague of his father’s, Tim McMahon, joined up with attorney Brad Corsiglia in 2007. They practice law in a downtown San Jose building, where Allard’s tidy, no-nonsense office is brightened by photos of his wife, Niccole, and their four grinning children.
Allard has proven himself an adept personal injury attorney. He was named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Santa Clara County Trial Lawyers Association in 2007 and 2009. The 2007 award was in large part for a $3.15 million jury verdict he secured for clients who were injured when their motorcycle collided with a car in Ventura. The plaintiffs were initially offered a $328,000 settlement.
In 2009, he obtained more than $2 million in arbitration for a public school employee injured in a head-on crash on a field trip; in another case, he secured $1.25 million for a motorist whose car was rear-ended.
San Jose attorney Christopher Rudy has opposed Allard in several cases and respects his dedication to clients. The pair had a face-off in a Santa Clara County courtroom last year after they failed to settle a personal injury case. “I disagreed on the value of the case but never disagreed on how he represented his client,” says Rudy, a partner at Stenberg, Sunseri, Roe, Pickard & Rudy.
The jury awarded Allard’s client less in compensatory damages than Rudy’s pretrial offer. But Allard was able to recover his costs and open the door to possible additional litigation that could yield punitive damages—a creative approach to a disappointing verdict. “It was a nice experience to try a case against him, but I’d prefer not to do it again,” Rudy quips.
Allard is also litigating on behalf of three families who say their daughters, ages 5 to 7, were molested by a childcare worker in San Jose. Filed last fall, the suit accuses Child Development Inc. of failing to adequately screen 26-year-old Keith Woodhouse before hiring him at its center that operates at Trace Elementary School. Woodhouse has been charged with 30 felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a child. If convicted, he faces a life sentence.
Allard says his work is inspired by the emphasis on service of his Catholic religion. “We as lawyers are uniquely positioned to do something, and we shouldn’t be motivated only by monetary compensation,” he says. “If we’re called to a cause, we should see it through so that everyone is made safer.”
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