This article appeared first in Pro Publica
This story discusses sexual assault.
At 19 years old and about to be married, Stephanie Mateer went to an OB-GYN within walking distance of her student housing near Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
She wanted to start using birth control, and she was looking for guidance about having sex for the first time on her 2008 wedding night.
Mateer was shocked, she said, when Dr. David Broadbent reached under her gown to grab and squeeze her breasts, started a vaginal exam without warning, then followed it with an extremely painful examination of her rectum.
She felt disgusted and violated, but doubt also creeped in. She told herself she must have misinterpreted his actions, or that she should have known that he would do a rectal exam. Raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said she was taught to defer to men in leadership.
“I viewed him as being a man in authority,” Mateer said. “He’s a doctor.”
It was years, Mateer said, before she learned that her experience was in a sharp contrast to the conduct called for in professional standards, including that doctors use only their fingertips during a breast exam and communicate clearly what they are doing in advance, to gain the consent of their patient. Eventually, she gave her experience another name: sexual assault.
Utah judges, however, have called it health care.
And that legal distinction means Utahns like Mateer who decide to sue a health care provider for alleged sexual abuse are treated more harshly by the court system than plaintiffs who say they were harmed in other settings.
The chance to go to civil court for damages is an important option for survivors, experts say. While a criminal conviction can provide a sense of justice, winning a lawsuit can help victims pay for the therapy and additional support they need to heal after trauma.
Mateer laid out her allegations in a lawsuit that she and 93 other women filed against Broadbent last year. But they quickly learned they would be treated differently than other sexual assault survivors.
Filing their case, which alleged the Utah County doctor sexually assaulted them over the span of his 47-year career, was an empowering moment, Mateer said. But a judge threw out the lawsuit without even considering the merits, determining that because their alleged assailant is a doctor, the case must be governed by medical malpractice rules rather than those that apply to cases of sexual assault.
Under Utah’s rules of medical malpractice, claims made by victims who allege a health care worker sexually assaulted them are literally worth less than lawsuits brought by someone who was assaulted in other settings — even if a jury rules in their favor, a judge is required to limit how much money they receive. And they must meet a shorter filing deadline.
“It’s just crazy that a doctor can sexually assault women and then be protected by the white coat,” Mateer said. “It’s just a really scary precedent to be calling sexual assault ‘health care.’”
Mateer in 2008, the year she first saw Dr. David Broadbent, an OB-GYN, in advance of her wedding night
(Courtesy of Stephanie Mateer)
Because of the judge’s ruling that leaves them with a shorter window in which to file, some of Broadbent’s accusers stand to lose their chance to sue. Others were already past that deadline but had hoped to take advantage of an exception that allows a plaintiff to sue if they can prove that the person who harmed them had covered up the wrongdoing and if they discovered they had been hurt within the previous year.
As a group, the women are appealing the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case. This decision will set a precedent for future sexual assault victims in Utah.
Broadbent’s attorney, Chris Nelson, declined an interview request but wrote in an email: “We believe that the allegations against Dr. Broadbent are without merit and will present our case in court. Given that this is an active legal matter, we will not be sharing any details outside the courtroom.”
States have varying legal definitions of medical malpractice, but it’s generally described as treatment that falls short of accepted standards of care. That includes mistakes, like a surgeon leaving a piece of gauze inside a patient.
Utah is among the states with the broadest definition of medical malpractice, covering any acts “arising” out of health care. The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that a teenage boy was receiving health care when he was allowed to climb a steep, snow-dusted rock outcrop as part of wilderness therapy. When he broke his leg, he could only sue for medical malpractice, so the case faced shorter filing deadlines and lower monetary caps. Similarly, the court has ruled that a boy harmed by another child while in foster care was also bound by medical malpractice law.
Despite these state Supreme Court rulings, Utah legislators have so far not moved to narrow the wording of the malpractice act.
The lawsuit against Broadbent — and the questions it raises about the broadness of Utah’s medical malpractice laws — comes during a national reckoning with how sexual assault survivors are treated by the law. Legislators in several states have been rewriting laws to give sexual assault victims more time to sue their attackers, in response to the growing cultural understanding of the impact of trauma and the barriers to reporting. Even in Utah, those who were sexually abused as children now have no deadline to file suits against their abusers.
That isn’t true for sexual abuse in a medical setting, where cases must be filed within two years of the assault.
These higher hurdles should not exist in Utah, said state Sen. Mike McKell, a Utah County Republican who works as a personal injury attorney. He is trying to change state law to ensure that sexual assault lawsuits do not fall under Utah’s Health Care Malpractice Act, a law designed to cover negligence and poor care, not necessarily deliberate actions like an assault.
Utah Sen. Mike McKell introduced a bill that would clarify that sexual assault claims should not be considered medical malpractice, removing legal obstacles for survivors who have been assaulted by health care workers.
(Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)
“Sexual assault, to me, is not medical care. Period,” he said. “It’s sad that we need to clarify that sexual assault is not medical care. But trying to tie sexual assault to a medical malpractice [filing deadline] — it’s just wrong.”
“Your Husband Is a Lucky Man”
Mateer had gone to Broadbent in 2008 for a premarital exam, a uniquely Utah visit often scheduled by young women who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Leaders of the faith, which is predominant in Utah, focus on chastity when speaking to young, unmarried people about sex, and public schools have typically focused on abstinence-based sex education. So for some, these visits are the first place they learn about sexual health.
Young women who get premarital exams are typically given a birth control prescription, but the appointments can also include care that’s less common for healthy women in other states — like doctors giving them vaginal dilators to stretch their tissue before their wedding night.
That’s what Mateer was expecting when she visited Broadbent’s office. The OB-GYN had been practicing for decades in his Provo clinic nestled between student housing apartments across the street from Brigham Young University, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Provo, Utah, office building where Broadbent once practiced
(Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)
So Mateer was “just totally taken aback,” she said, by the painful examination and by Broadbent snapping off his gloves after the exam and saying, “Your husband is a lucky man.”
She repeated that remark in her legal filing, along with the doctor’s advice for her: If she bled during intercourse, “just do what the Boy Scouts do and apply pressure.”
“The whole thing was like I’m some object for my husband to enjoy and let him do whatever he wants,” Mateer said. “It was just very violating and not a great way to start my sexual relationship with my new husband, with these ideas in mind.”
Mateer thought back to that visit over the years, particularly when she went to other OB-GYNs for health care. Her subsequent doctors, she said, never performed a rectal exam and always explained to her what they were doing and how it would feel, and asked for her consent.
She thought about Broadbent again in 2017, as the #MeToo movement gained momentum, and looked him up online. Mateer found reviews from other women who described Broadbent doing rough examinations without warning that left them feeling the same way she had years before.
Then in December 2021, she spoke out on “Mormon Stories,” a podcast where people who have left or have questioned their Latter-day Saint faith share their life stories. In the episode, she described the painful way he examined her, how it left her feeling traumatized and her discovery of the reviews that echoed her experience.
“He’s on University Avenue, in Provo, giving these exams to who knows how many naive Mormon 18-year-old, 19-year-old girls who are getting married. … They are naive and they don’t know what to expect,” she said on the podcast. “His name is Dr. David Broadbent.”
After the podcast aired, Mateer was flooded with messages from women who heard the episode and reached out to tell her that Broadbent had harmed them, too.
Mateer and three other women decided to sue the OB-GYN, and in the following weeks and months, 90 additional women joined the lawsuit they filed in Provo. Many of the women allege Broadbent inappropriately touched their breasts, vaginas and rectums, hurting them, without warning or explanation. Some said he used his bare hand — instead of using a speculum or gloves — during exams. One alleged that she saw he had an erection while he was touching her.
Broadbent’s actions were not medically necessary, the women allege, and were instead “performed for no other reason than his own sexual gratification.”
The lawsuit also named as defendants two hospitals where Broadbent had delivered babies and where some of the women allege they were assaulted. The suit accused hospital administrators of knowing about Broadbent’s inappropriate behavior and doing nothing about it.
After he was sued, the OB-GYN quickly lost his privileges at the hospitals where he worked. Broadbent, now 75, has also voluntarily put his medical license in Utah on hold while police investigate 29 reports of sexual assault made against him.
Prosecutors are still considering whether to criminally prosecute Broadbent. Provo police forwarded more than a dozen reports to the Utah County attorney’s office in November, which are still being reviewed by a local prosecutor.
A spokesperson for Intermountain Health, the nonprofit health system that owns Utah Valley Hospital, where some of the women in the suit were treated, did not respond to specific questions. The spokesperson emphasized in an email that Broadbent was an “independent physician” who was not employed by Utah Valley Hospital, adding that most of the alleged incidents took place at Broadbent’s medical office.
A representative for MountainStar Healthcare, another hospital chain named as a defendant, denied knowledge of any allegations of inappropriate conduct reported to its hospital and also emphasized that Broadbent worked independently, not as an employee.
“Our position since this lawsuit was filed has been that we were inappropriately named in this suit,” said Brittany Glas, the communications director for MountainStar.
Debating Whether Sexual Abuse Is Health Care
For the women who sued Broadbent, their case boiled down to a key question: Were the sexual assaults they say they experienced part of their health care? There was a lot hanging on the answer.
If their case was considered medical malpractice, they would be limited in how much money they could receive in damages for their pain and suffering. If a jury awarded them millions of dollars, a judge would be required by law to cut that down to $450,000. There’s no cap on these monetary awards for victims sexually assaulted in other settings.
They would also be required to go before a panel, which includes a doctor, a lawyer and a community member, that decides whether their claims have merit. This step, aimed at resolving disputes out of court, does not block anyone from suing afterward. But it does add cost and delay, and for sexual assault victims who’ve gone through this step, it has been another time they were required to describe their experiences and hope they were believed.
The shorter, two-year filing deadline for medical malpractice cases can also be a particular challenge for those who have been sexually abused because research shows that it’s common to delay reporting such assaults.
Nationwide, these kinds of malpractice reforms were adopted in the 1970s amid concerns — largely driven by insurance companies — that the cost of health care was rising because of frivolous lawsuits and “runaway juries” doling out multimillion-dollar payouts.
Restricting the size of malpractice awards and imposing other limits, many argued, were effective ways to balance compensating injured patients with protecting everyone’s access to health care.
State laws are generally silent on whether sexual assault lawsuits should be covered by malpractice laws, leaving courts to grapple with that question and leading to different conclusions across the country. The Tribune and ProPublica identified at least six cases in which state appellate judges sharply distinguished between assault and health care in considering whether malpractice laws should apply to sexual assault-related cases.
An appellate court in Wisconsin, for example, ruled in 1993 that a physician having an erection and groping a patient was a purposeful harm, not medical malpractice.
Florida’s law is similar to Utah’s, defining allegations “arising” out of medical care as malpractice. While an earlier ruling did treat sexual assault in a health care setting as medical malpractice, appellate rulings in the last decade have moved away from that interpretation. In 2005, an appellate court affirmed a lower-court ruling that when a dentist “stopped providing dental treatment to the victim and began sexually assaulting her, his professional services ended.”
Similarly, a federal judge in Iowa in 1995 weighed in on the meaning of “arising” out of health care: “Rape is not patient care activity,” he wrote.
But Utah’s malpractice law is so broad that judges have been interpreting it as covering any act performed by a health care provider during medical care. The law was passed in 1976 and is popular with doctors and other health care providers, who have lobbied to keep it in place — and who use it to get lawsuits dismissed.
Broadbent’s name has been removed from the directory outside his former office suite.
(Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)
One precedent-setting case in Utah shows the law’s power to safeguard health care providers and was an important test of how Utah defines medical malpractice. Jacob Scott sued WinGate Wilderness Therapy after the teen broke his leg in 2015 when a hiking guide from the center allowed him to climb up and down a steep outcrop in Utah’s red rock desert.
His parents are both lawyers, and after they found that Utah had a four-year deadline for filing a personal injury lawsuit, court records said, they decided to prioritize “getting Jacob better” for the first two years after the accident. But when Scott’s suit was filed, WinGate argued it was too late — based on the shorter, two-year deadline for medical malpractice claims.
Scott’s attorneys scoffed. “Interacting with nature,” his attorneys argued, “is not health care even under the broadest interpretation of … the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act.”
A judge disagreed and threw out Scott’s case. The Utah Supreme Court unanimously upheld that ruling in 2021.
“We agree with Wingate,” the justices wrote, “that it was acting as a ‘health care provider’ and providing ‘health care’ when Jacob was hiking and rock climbing.”
Last summer, the women who had sued Broadbent and the two hospitals watched online as lawyers debated whether the abuse they allegedly suffered was health care.
At the hearing, attorneys for Broadbent and the hospitals argued that the women should have pursued a medical malpractice case, which required them to first notify Broadbent and the hospitals that they wanted to sue. They also argued to Judge Robert Lunnen that the case couldn’t move forward because the women hadn’t gone before a pre-litigation panel.
Attorneys for Broadbent and the hospitals argued, one after the other, that the painful and traumatic exams the women described arose out of health care treatments.
“Accepting the allegations of the complaint as true — as we must for purposes of this proceeding — we have to assume that [Broadbent] did something that was medically unnecessary, medically inappropriate,” argued David Jordan, a lawyer for Intermountain Health.
“But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s an act performed to a patient, during the patient’s treatment,” he said. “Because that’s what the patient is doing in the doctor’s office. They’re there for treatment.”
The attorney team for the women pushed back. Terry Rooney argued that if Broadbent’s actions fell under medical malpractice laws, many women would be knocked out of the case because of the age of their claims, and those who remained would be limited in the amount of money in damages they could receive.
“That’s really what this is about,” he argued. “And so it’s troubling — quite frankly it’s shocking to me — that we’re debating heavily the question of whether sexual abuse is health care.”
The judge mulled the issue for months. Lunnen wrote in a September ruling that if the allegations were true, Broadbent’s treatment of his patients was “insensitive, disrespectful and degrading.”
But Utah law is clear, he said. Malpractice law covers any act or treatment performed by any health care provider during the patient’s medical care. The women had all been seeking health care, Lunnen wrote, and Broadbent was providing that when the alleged assaults happened.
Their lawsuit was dismissed.
“I Felt Defeated”
Brooke, another plaintiff who alleges Broadbent groped her, remembers feeling sick on the June day she watched the attorneys arguing. She asked to be identified by only her first name for this story.
She alleges Broadbent violated her in December 2008 while she was hospitalized after experiencing complications with her first pregnancy.
Brooke, one of the women suing Broadbent, says the OB-GYN groped her when she was in the hospital after having complications with her first pregnancy.
(Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)
The nearest hospital to her rural town didn’t have a special unit to take care of premature babies, and her doctors feared she might need to deliver her son six weeks early. So Brooke had been rushed by ambulance over a mountain pass in a snowstorm to Utah Valley Hospital.
Brooke and her husband were terrified, she said, when they arrived at the Provo hospital. Broadbent happened to be the doctor on call. With Brooke’s husband and brother-in-law in the room, Broadbent examined her late that evening, she said, listening to her chest with a stethoscope.
The doctor then suddenly grabbed her breasts, she recalled — his movements causing her hospital gown to fall to expose her chest. She recounted this experience in her lawsuit, saying it was nothing like the breast exams she has had since.
“It was really traumatizing,” she said. “I was mortified. My husband and brother-in-law — we just didn’t say anything about it because it was so uncomfortable.”
Brooke voiced concerns to the nurse manager, and she was assigned a new doctor.
She gave birth to a healthy baby a little more than a month later, at the hospital near her home.
Hearing the judge’s ruling 14 years later, Brooke felt the decision revealed how Utah’s laws are broken.
“I was frustrated,” she said, “and I felt defeated. … I thought justice is not on our side with this.”
If the Utah Supreme Court rules that these alleged sexual assaults should legally be considered health care, the women will likely refile their claims as a medical malpractice lawsuit, said their attorney, Adam Sorensen. But it would be a challenge to keep all 94 women in the case, he said, due to the shorter filing window. Only two women in the lawsuit allege that they were harmed within the last two years.
The legal team for the women would have to convince a judge that their claims should still be allowed because they only recently discovered they were harmed. But based on previous rulings, Sorensen believes the women will have a better chance to win that argument if the civil suit remained a sexual assault case.
Regardless of what happens in their legal case, the decision by Brooke and the other women to come forward could help change state law for victims who come after them.
Last week, McKell, the state senator, introduced legislation to clarify that civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault by a health care worker do not fall under Utah’s Health Care Malpractice Act.
“I don’t think it’s a close call. Sexual assault is not medical care,” he said. “I know we’ve got some bizarre rulings that have come down through our courts in Utah.”
Both an association of Utah trial lawyers and the Utah Medical Association, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s physicians, support this reform.
“We support the fact that sexual assault should not be part of health care medical malpractice,” said Michelle McOmber, the CEO for the Utah Medical Association. “Sexual assault should be sexual assault, regardless of where it happens or who’s doing it. Sexual assault should be in that category, which is separate from actual health care. Because it’s not health care.”
MountainStar doesn’t have a position on the bill, Glas said. “If the laws were to change via new legislation and/or interpretation by the courts, we would abide by and comply with those new laws.”
But lawmakers are running out of time. With only a week and a half left in Utah’s legislative session, state senate and house leaders have so far prioritized passing new laws banning gender-affirming health care for transgender youths and creating a controversial school voucher program that will provide taxpayer funds for students to attend private school.
Utah lawmakers were also expected to consider a dramatic change for other sexual assault victims: a bill that would remove filing deadlines for civil lawsuits brought by people abused as adults. But that bill stalled before it could even be debated.
Brooke had been eager to share her story, she said, in hopes it would help the first four women who’d come forward bolster their lawsuit against Broadbent. She later joined the case as a plaintiff. She read in their lawsuit about one woman who complained about him to the same hospital seven years before she did, and about another woman who said Broadbent similarly molested her two days after Brooke had expressed her own concern.
“That bothered me so much,” she said. “It didn’t have to happen to all these women.”
Brooke doubts she’ll get vindication in a courtroom. Justice for her, she suspects, won’t come in the form of a legal ruling or a settlement against the doctor she says hurt her years ago.
Instead, she said, “maybe justice looks like changing the laws for future women.”
If you need to report or discuss a sexual assault in Utah, you can call the Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 801-736-4356. Those who live outside of Utah can reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.
Mollie Simon contributed research.