Adapted from the new book The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down by Abigail Pesta
Attorney James White knew the Nassar case would be huge.
When the allegations of abuse hit the news in 2016, he started gathering the troops at his law firm in Lansing, Michigan. He knew that sexual predators don’t stop with just one or two victims. He knew the minds of predators—he had defended some of them at his practice. And he knew Michigan State, where Nassar had served as a doctor; White had gone to both college and law school there. Indeed, hundreds of women soon came forward to accuse Nassar of abuse at the university and elsewhere.
White was ready. He and a band of attorneys from around the country launched a high-stakes legal battle against his alma mater, eventually brokering a $500 million deal, the biggest settlement of its kind ever in the U.S. Getting there was a game of intriguing, and cutthroat, legal strategy—with a pivotal play by White. As he says, “It was the most expensive game of poker in the history of mankind.”
Sitting outside at a Lansing café owned by his wife on a windy, warm afternoon, White is gregarious, down to earth, with an easy smile. But underneath that relaxed vibe lies a fierce litigator. Over a club sandwich, he tells me a phenomenal story of the personal journey that led him to the Nassar case.
White learned about crime and injustice from an early age. The biracial son of an African American father and an Irish American mother, he was six years old when he saw his father nearly get killed by a gang of men. He grew up in Jackson, Michigan, a small rust belt city once known for manufacturing some twenty brands of cars, and also corsets. “I grew up on the poor side of town,” he says. “It was a diverse neighborhood; I had friends from all different backgrounds.” The attack happened on a Saturday afternoon, in the summer of 1978. The family had always held backyard barbecues on the weekends, listening to music, playing cards. But this time, they planned to do something special, traveling to a lake in southern Michigan. His mom packed a picnic basket, and White was thrilled.
On the beach, about a dozen guys were hanging out together, drinking heavily—a softball team. The men took an immediate dislike to White’s family. “They passed around a bag of baseball bats. Their dogs chased my brother and me into the water, and we weren’t swimmers. My dad asked them to leash their dogs, and that went really bad, really fast. My dad got bashed right in front of us. They cracked his head wide open, with bats and bottles. They chased my brother and me to our car, bashing out our car windows with baseball bats,” he says. All the while, the men shouted racial slurs. “That was the first real racial experience I had. I was shocked because my parents raised us to believe that we were just the same as everyone else.”
Justice was never served.
What happened next speaks volumes about White, his family, and the worldview that has shaped his life and his legal work.
“It was an impactful day in my life, for sure, but even more impactful than the crazy violence I saw was the response of my family and my family’s friends. They maintained their integrity. They didn’t choose to become part of that hate. They just never did that. It would have been easy for them to fold up and blame the world,” he says. “That day, that summer, my views of humanity were forever forged.”
White remembers the wise words of his grandfather from the time: “The best way to deal with racism is to buy the company.” In other words, get educated, become a success. White took that advice to heart, graduating from law school at Michigan State and starting his own practice in an attic of a small house he bought in Lansing.
From his attic, he gradually expanded his firm. In his first big victory, he won a million-dollar settlement against the City of Lansing when a policeman rammed into pedestrians in his cruiser. Eventually he moved to his own office and hired a staff, taking on increasingly complex cases.
And then came the Nassar case.
“Not to be melodramatic, but honestly, all of that stuff I went through in my life brought me to this,” he says. “It started when I was six years old.”
His first call in the case came in from Michigan State gymnast Lindsey Lemke’s mom, Christy. White and his wife had known the Lemke family for years, and this was personal.
Still, he knew it would be difficult to make a civil case work. Not only did most of the women in the case fall outside the statute of limitations, but Michigan State had immunity as a government institution. “As a general rule, the state of Michigan and its agencies are immune from civil litigation,” he says. “There are some exceptions, but none for sexual abuse.”
He began strategizing. He connected with a state senator, Margaret O’Brien, who was working on a package of sexual abuse laws. They discussed adding two new pieces of legislation to the package—giving survivors more time to take legal action, and stripping government institutions of immunity in sexual abuse cases.
White began working on the new pieces of legislation behind the scenes. “I started doing twenty-hour days, seven days a week,” he says. “My diet, health, personal relationships—everything took a back seat. MSU was preparing to dismiss these cases. Other lawyers were telling me I was wasting my time. I felt that there’s too much human carnage. There’s got to be a solution.”
White says he didn’t necessarily need the bills to pass—he just needed to get them to the state legislature for a vote. He believed the pressure of the pending legislation would make Michigan State more willing to make a deal.
“It was a game of chess for months,” he says. “I’d come home and tell my wife, ‘Oh my god, I’m in checkmate.’”
His strategy took a remarkable turn.
The bills made it to the state legislature, putting the heat on Michigan State. White kept tabs on the lawmakers to see which way the wind was blowing for the vote. It became clear that the bill expanding the statute of limitations would pass—but the bill stripping the university of immunity would not pass.
He promptly called his band of lawyers, who were embroiled in a round of talks with Michigan State in California at the time. White had been at the talks a day earlier but had flown back to Michigan to keep an eye on the impending vote. Michigan State did not know it would keep its immunity, he says. So he told his team: “Make the deal—now.”
Michigan State did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
Michelle Tuegel, one of the attorneys in the case, recalls the drama of getting the scoop from White that the university would keep its immunity, putting a potential settlement in jeopardy. She was in California at the time with the band of attorneys. “We learned it was now or possibly never to get a deal inked,” she says. “Hours and minutes can sometimes mean the difference between $500 million and zero dollars.”
Indeed, they made the deal for half a billion dollars, when the school might not have had to pay a dime.
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist and author whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and many other outlets. This article is adapted from her new book, The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down. Copyright © 2019 Published by arrangement with Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.