Embattled Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, accused of sexual assault and sexual misconduct by multiple women, has reached a confidential settlement in 20 of 24 civil lawsuits filed against him in Harris County District Court.
The majority of the lawsuits were filed last year, and all were filed by plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee, who announced the settlement.
Watson was not charged criminally by two Texas grand juries and has maintained he’s innocent of wrongdoing.
Today I announce that all cases against Deshaun Watson, with the exception of four, have settled,” Buzbee said in a statement. “We are working through the paperwork related to those settlements. Once we have done so, those particular cases will be dismissed. The terms and amounts of the settlements are confidential. We won’t comment further on the settlements or those cases.”
Traded to the Browns from the Houston Texans and signed to a $230 million fully guaranteed contract, Watson, 26, has become a controversial figure in the NFL.
It’s unclear if this settlement will impact his anticipated hefty punishment from the NFL under its personal conduct policy, but Watson is widely expected to miss a significant portion, if not the entire season.
The original plaintiff, Ashley Solis, who has been outspoken about Watson’s alleged misconduct, remains an active case.
And Buzbee intends to continue advocating for Solis and other plaintiffs.
“The cases against Deshaun Watson started with one phone call, from one brave and strong woman,” Buzbee stated. “That woman was Ashley Solis. At the time of that call she was just one of the hundreds of calls seeking legal assistance that our firm gets weekly. Even though she was originally turned away by our screening process, my staff insisted that I personally speak with her. I’m glad she persisted. Once we took a second look, and after having contact with Watson’s original lawyer who disrespected Ashley and her profession and who arrogantly minimized the conduct of someone he referred to as an ‘asset,’ I was convinced that our law firm should try to help her.
“As a result of Ashley’s lone but brave voice, soon many women who had allegedly experienced the same conduct were emboldened to step forward. I am incredibly proud to represent them all. They have endured vile criticism and fanatical ignorance. They faced withering cross examination by skilled litigators and stood firm. They are warriors all. Today we have an important announcement about these cases, but it is important to point out that, without Ashley Solis, the conduct experienced by these women would likely have continued unfettered. The truth is, without her courage and willingness to come forward, the NFL wouldn’t currently be contemplating discipline; there would be no examination of how teams might knowingly or unknowingly enable certain behavior; sports teams wouldn’t be reviewing their personnel screening processes; and this important story wouldn’t have dominated the sports headlines for more than a year.”
There was no immediate comment from the Browns, Watson or Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, in an email to Pro Football Network, wrote: “Today’s development has no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process.”
A week ago, Watson spoke to reporters for the first time since his introductory press conference.
“Like I said, I never assaulted anyone,” Watson said. “I never harassed anyone or never disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything. I’ve been honest, and I’ve been truthful about my stance. I never forced anyone. I never assaulted anyone.
“That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning, and I’m going to continue to do that until all of the facts come out. On the legal side, I have to just go with the process of my legal team and the court of law.”
Watson has met several times in Houston with Lisa Friel, the NFL’s chief investigative counsel for personal-conduct policy investigations. Friel is the former chief of the Manhattan, New York District Attorney’s Office sex crimes prosecution office.
“I met with the NFL a couple of weeks ago and did everything they asked me to do,” Watson said last week. “I answered every question truthfully that the NFL asked me, I spent hours with the people that they brought down, and that’s all I can do, be honest and tell them exactly what happened. I know they have a job, and I have to respect that, so that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to cooperate, and they have to make a decision that’s best for the league.”
The 24th lawsuit, previously filed by Buzbee on behalf of massage therapist Katy Williams, referenced Hardin, making a “happy endings” comment during a Houston radio station interview.
“Deshaun Watson’s attorney has called every woman suing Watson a liar,” the lawsuit stated. “Watson’s lawyer claims that ‘happy endings’ are common in massage therapy and, short of paying extra for it, such conduct is not a crime. Watson’s lawyer goes on to say that making a massage therapist ‘uncomfortable’ due to the type of conduct described herein is not a crime.
“The public comments made by Watson’s defense team evidence a belief system that explains Watson’s conduct: when Watson contacts a random massage therapist on Instagram for a massage, unbeknownst to the therapist, Watson is wanting more than a massage – his ‘thing’ is using his celebrity to make a massage into something more.
“The woman do not learn about Watson’s proclivities until it is too late. What Plaintiff alleges herein is disgusting and abhorrent conduct, a habit and custom of conduct, that is actionable under the laws of the state of Texas. Despite Watson’s legal team’s efforts to normalize such conduct, such conduct is not normal and is legally actionable.”
Hardin issued a statement previously about his comments. He has acknowledged that Watson had consensual sex with three of the plaintiffs. The NFL is expected to recommend whether Watson will be punished under the personal conduct policy before training camp, with the NFL Players Association and Hardin advocating for him.
“Deshaun Watson did nothing wrong,” Hardin stated. “And as two grand juries have made clear, Deshaun did nothing illegal. Deshaun has always acknowledged consensual sexual activity with three of the plaintiff massage therapists after massages. And Deshaun has repeatedly sworn under oath that he did not force any of his accusers to have sexual contact.
“On a Houston radio show interview, I mentioned that a massage that has a ‘happy ending’ is not illegal, meaning it is not illegal for someone to have consensual sex with a therapist after a massage unless the sex is for pay. Deshaun did not pay anyone for sex. I was using the term hypothetically and not describing Deshaun’s case. I have reiterated to others it’s not ok to do anything that a woman does not agree to do.
“These women have alleged assault in their pleadings. I was speaking in a hypothetical situation. If there is a consensual sexual encounter after a massage, that is not a crime nor the basis for a civil lawsuit. I was not talking about what Deshaun did or did not do or expected or did not expect.”
The lawsuit alleges that Watson told the plaintiff he wanted to support a black-owned business and arranged a massage on Aug. 5, 2020. He told her that he wanted her to be comfortable and didn’t need to wear her scrubs.
The lawsuit said that there were two massage sessions.
In the second massage session on Aug. 9, 2020, the plaintiff alleged that Watson didn’t want to use the standard draping, requested to be covered by only a small towel, and asked that she work on his inner thighs. The plaintiff said she “became very uncomfortable.”
The lawsuit alleges graphic sexual behavior, including masturbation by the NFL player in her presence and onto her. The lawsuit states that Watson did not apologize or explain himself and paid the plaintiff $150, leaving her “humiliated and traumatized.”
During a segment on HBO’s Real Sports that recently aired, two women took issue with Watson receiving a fully guaranteed $230 million contract from the Browns after being traded from the Houston Texans.
“It’s just like a big ‘screw you,'” Solis said during an interview with HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel conducted by reporter Soledad O’Brien. “That’s what it feels like. That we don’t care. He can run and throw, and that’s what we care about.”
Solis, the first accuser against Watson, also told HBO she felt threatened by Watson following their massage session.
“He just said, ‘I know you have a career to protect,'” Solis said. “‘And I know you don’t want anyone messing with it just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.’ To me, that’s when I got really scared. That sounded like a threat to me.”
Another accuser, Kyla Hayes, characterized the contract as “sick,” adding, “I felt like he’s being rewarded for bad behavior.”
Solis and Hayes both reiterated the accusations they’ve made in previous interviews and in court filings in Harris County District Court as they told their version of what transpired in the massage therapy sessions.
Solis told HBO, “As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand. And I pulled my hand away instantly, and I started crying. And I told him that I was done. I don’t wanna do this anymore.’’
Hayes said that Watson “wanted me to kinda make a V motion in his pelvic area. So go across his stomach to his thighs, back to his stomach. I just kept massaging and did what he asked until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it. He was moving his penis back and forth as my hands moved as well. At some point, he did ejaculate. That was mortifying and embarrassing and disgusting.’’
Multiple sources, including law enforcement officials, have said that there is no audio, video, or DNA evidence, in this case.
Watson did not comment to HBO, with Hardin, citing the NFL’s ongoing investigation as the reason why. Watson has been participating in the Browns’ organized team activities and hosted several teammates on a team-bonding trip to The Bahamas last week.
A three-time Pro Bowl passer, Watson has denied all wrongdoing publicly and through Hardin.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the league meetings that the investigation is nearing its end but offered no timetable on when a decision on potential discipline would be rendered.
Hardin released a video statement to Pro Football Network and other outlets in advance of the HBO program.
In his statement, Hardin repeatedly denied that Watson had forced any of the massage therapists to have sexual relations. He acknowledged, as he did last year at the outset of the case, that Watson had consensual sexual relations with three of the complainants.
“We just did a deposition yesterday and her deposition, her case, was the third one filed and the first one to allege force, and the world went wild over it,” Hardin said. “Deshaun’s reputation was horrible. For 30 days, we didn’t even know who she was because they were filed anonymously. And then when we get to her deposition yesterday, she admitted under oath, there was no force. He used no force against her. And this is the one they gave the biggest scream when this first started. Nobody really wanted to deal much with the fact that two different grand juries found there were no criminal events. The grand jury decides probable cause. Is there any basis for believing there was a crime committed, whether it’s a felony or a misdemeanor? And both of those grand juries found no probable cause to believe any crime at all was committed.
“That should have been given great sway because originally there were allegations, he used force against these women. Turns out only three of the 22 lawsuits involve any allegation of force and then when subjected to investigation by law enforcement, and presentation to a grand jury, it was found no force was used. There was no indication of a crime involving any type of force. As we’ve said, as Deshaun has insisted under oath, each of those three occasions were consensual and instituted by the women. But in the other … 19 cases there was no sexual activity. And Deshaun has already given nine depositions – 11 now – and sworn under oath that there was no sexual activity except those three incidents, and they were consensual.”
Hardin acknowledged in his statement that sexual misconduct is a large problem in society. He emphasized that his client has been wrongfully accused.
“We have a tremendous social problem in this area, I agree, but the solution is not to assume every allegation is true,” Hardin said. “Each one ought to be looked at separately and judged on its own merits. And if that happens, we’re comfortable that Deshaun has been telling the truth all along. He never did anything inappropriate with these women and certainly he never harmed them and never did anything that was not consensual.”
Another attorney representing Watson, Leah Graham, spoke with HBO and said the NFL player “has no regrets because he did nothing wrong.”
“He did nothing wrong in these massages,” Graham said. “And although, to your first question, ‘How can he be innocent?’ I think the real question is, ‘What evidence is there of any guilt?'”
Graham was asked by HBO to explain how Watson “unintentionally ending up having sex with people who are giving you professional massages?”
Graham replied, “Well, in every massage, I will tell you he did go, intending just for a professional massage, and only those three instances where sexual conduct occurred — consensual sexual activity — it occurred after the massage session had ended. And Mr. Watson has testified and is insistent that that sexual activity was initiated by the plaintiff in every single instance. As he testified in his depositions last week, yes, he has no regrets because he did nothing wrong. He did nothing wrong in these massages.”
Buzbee issued a statement in advance of the program.
“As was the case with speaking with law enforcement and the NFL, we left the decision whether to speak publicly up to the clients themselves,’’ Buzbee wrote. “Two chose to do so. These women are the most brave and courageous I’ve ever met. This firm is extremely proud to represent them. During the filming process I was impressed with HBO’s diligence and insistence on fairness. Despite our requests, HBO refused to provide us beforehand the questions they intended to ask.
“And, I can tell you, hard questions were in fact asked — not only to our clients but to me as well. This firm has been trying and winning civil cases for twenty-five years; we are extremely confident in these cases. As each witness testifies in the pre-trial discovery process, the evidence against Deshaun Watson continues to mount. The walls, as they say, are closing in. We look forward to trying these cases in court as soon as practicable. We are very confident that, in the end, justice will be done.”
Graham and Hardin have both alleged that Buzbee took the cases seeking publicity.
“It’s 22 women,’’ Graham said. “It’s one lawyer. There’s only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.’’
Buzbee recently declared an intention to add the NFL team as a defendant in ongoing litigation against Watson, accusing the Texans of being “well aware of Watson’s issues, but failed to act.”
During a statement last month, Buzbee said: “Based on what we have learned from the Houston Police Department, we will soon be joining the Houston Texans organization and others as defendants in the ongoing lawsuits against Deshaun Watson. Our team has thoroughly vetted each case. We are considering many others. These women are the true heroes in this sordid story. What has become clear is that the Houston Texans organization and their contracting ‘massage therapy company’ facilitated Deshaun Watson’s conduct.
“In many of these cases, the Texans provided the opportunity for this conduct to occur. We believe the Texans organization was well aware of Watson’s issues, but failed to act. They knew or certainly should have known. The Houston Texans organization provided rooms for Watson at the high-end Houstonian hotel for his ‘massages;’ the Texans also provided massage tables and other support for Watson’s proclivities — ostensibly to protect their ‘asset.’ We intend to make sure all involved in Watson’s conduct are held accountable, in addition to and including Watson himself.”
The Texans haven’t responded to Buzbee’s statement.
On March 17, 2021, after Watson was first sued by Buzbee, the Texans issued the following statement:
“We became aware of a civil lawsuit involving Deshaun Watson through a social media post last night. This is the first time we heard of the matter, and we hope to learn more soon. We take accusations of this nature that involve anyone within the Houston Texans organization seriously. We will await further information before making any additional statements on this incident.“
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.