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Lawmakers must sign off on $13.5M settlement between parents of Lauren McCluskey, University of Utah

Matt McCluskey, left, wipes his eyes as he and his wife, Jill, listen to a speaker on the two-year anniversary of their daughter Lauren McCluskey’s death at the McCarthey Family Track and Field Complex in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. Lauren McCluskey, a track athlete, was was shot and killed on campus near her dorm by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, after weeks of being stalked and harassed by Rowland.
Matt McCluskey, left, wipes his eyes as he and his wife, Jill, listen to a speaker on the two-year anniversary of their daughter Lauren McCluskey’s death at the McCarthey Family Track and Field Complex in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. Lauren McCluskey, a track athlete, was was shot and killed on campus near her dorm by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, after weeks of being stalked and harassed by Rowland.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The settlement between the parents of murdered University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey and the school won’t be final until the state Legislature and governor sign off on it.

Lawyers for both sides told a federal judge Monday that they anticipate approval when lawmakers meet in general session in January. Utah law requires the Legislature to approve settlements involving state agencies that exceed $1 million.

University President Ruth Watkins and McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt McCluskey, announced Oct. 21 that they had reached a $13.5 million settlement in their two lawsuits against the university.

The state, through its risk management agency and insurance provider, will pay $10.5 million to the McCluskeys. Another $3 million will be paid by the university in the form of a donation to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation.

The settlement came on the two-year anniversary of Lauren McCluskey’s death.

In announcing the agreement, Watkins acknowledged the university failed in its duty to help McCluskey, and the school concedes that her murder was a “brutal, senseless and preventable” tragedy.

Joni Jones, an assistant attorney general representing the college, said she has met with the governor’s legal counsel and legislative leaders about approving the settlement.

“They’re, of course, aware that this will be coming before them,” she told U.S. District Judge Howard Nielson. “We’re not anticipating this will come up in a special session, but rather it will be in the general session.”

The session runs from Jan. 19 to March 5, and the state has until March 31 to make the payment, Jones said.

Dick Baldwin, a lawyer for the McCluskeys, said once the settlement is approved, the McCluskeys would seek to dismiss the lawsuit against the University of Utah and the other defendants with prejudice, meaning it could not be filed again.

On Oct. 22, 2018, McCluskey, a 21-year-old communications major and track athlete from Pullman, Washington, was shot and killed on campus near her dorm by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, after weeks of being stalked and harassed by Rowland. Rowland fatally shot himself hours later as police were closing in to make an arrest.

In the weeks that followed McCluskey’s death, it was learned that she had sought repeatedly to get help from campus police without success.

From Oct. 10 until her death on Oct. 22, 2018, McCluskey called the campus police department more than 20 times reporting her concerns about Rowland, who had lied to McCluskey about his name, age and criminal history, which included serving time in prison for attempted forcible sexual abuse and enticing a minor — crimes that required him to be on the Utah Sex Offender Registry.

While he was harassing McCluskey, Rowland threatened to release compromising photos of her if she did not pay him $1,000, according to police.

McCluskey’s parents filed a federal civil lawsuit that sought $56 million and a wrongful death lawsuit in state court. The agreement settles both cases.

Nielson stayed the federal litigation until May 1 to give the parties time to renew the litigation should the settlement fall through, though the lawyers told the judge they don’t see that happening.

The settlement doesn’t preclude other defendants in the case, including campus police officers, from suing the university or the state.

Joshua Oslter, who represents former university police Chief Dale Brophy and former officer Migel Deras, said the settlement caught his clients by surprise. He said they might have claims against the state and the university not related to the McCluskeys but to the way things have been handled with reports being released and with what’s been said in the press.

Ostler said he is evaluating whether other actions might be taken on behalf of Brophy and Deras related to how they’ve been treated by the college and the effect the lawsuit and statements the parties have made has on their current and future employment.

Although an independent investigation concluded that university police may not have been able to prevent McCluskey’s death, the fallout from the turmoil included the sudden retirement of Brophy and the firing of Deras from the Logan Police Department after it was determined that he showed explicit photos of McCluskey that he had on his phone to other officers.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill last month said Deras’ actions were reckless but did not violate any current Utah laws.