Misconduct and Sexual Abuse at Massage Parlors

Over the past several years, there has been an alarming spike in the number of allegations of misconduct and sexual abuse at massage parlors throughout the country, including, specifically, against Massage Envy Franchising LLC, a massage parlor and spa chain with franchises in California. Massage parlor abuse and misconduct can take many forms, such as inappropriate touching, groping, massaging areas of the body without proper consent and imposing, intentionally or otherwise, severe and lasting emotional distress.

Because misconduct and sexual abuse at massage parlors in California can vary widely, there are many avenues that a massage parlor abuse victim of this abuse may seek in order to obtain a full recovery for their injuries. A victim can attempt to sue the massage therapist directly, the individual franchisee or owner of the massage location, and, in some cases, the landlord, owner of the property (if different from the owner or operator of the franchise), or franchisor.

A victim of this manner of massage parlor abuse may have a strong claim directly against the massage therapist for sexual battery. California has some of the nation’s strictest sexual abuse laws and requires proving that the alleged perpetrator of the abuse acted with intent to cause sexually offensive conduct and that such offensive conduct actually occurred. In the case of a sexual assault at a massage parlor, a victim would therefore have to prove that the massage therapist actually intended to cause offensive conduct (as opposed to accidentally causing such conduct) and that the conduct actually occurred.

Related: Who is Responsible for the Massage Envy Assault Cases?

Unfortunately, however, in many cases, pursuing a claim against the massage therapist directly may yield less than a full recovery for the injuries, mostly because the massage therapist might be functionally insolvent. That is, the massage therapist may lack insurance personally, or any assets substantial enough to satisfy the judgment levied against the therapist. In these cases, victims of this manner of massage parlor abuse may pursue alternate claims against the massage parlor directly. One such claim to be pursued is a negligence action: essentially, that the owner, operator, or franchisee of the massage parlor failed to perform some duty they were entrusted to perform, that this failure resulted in the damages alleged, and that there were actual, physical damages alleged (as opposed to solely emotional distress).

The owner and operators of a massage parlor owe a general duty to both their clients and the general public. Owners and operators owe a duty to reasonably screen and to supervise their employees or agents. They must ensure that these individuals do not affirmatively harm customers or, through lack of training or supervision, unknowingly cause customers physical and emotional harm. Quite frequently, massage therapists who act inappropriately or sexually abuse customers are repeat offenders of this manner of abuse, and the massage parlor may be well aware of previous allegations against this employee or agent. It is not infrequent to see massage therapists that are fired from a previous employer for sexual abuse be re-hired by another massage parlor. Frequently, these therapists will not reveal their previous transgressions of massage parlor abuse.

Despite this, a massage parlor or spa has a duty to investigate that the employees they hire for massages or other treatments on customers are qualified to perform massages in a manner consistent with a customer’s reasonable expectations. Quite commonly, massage parlor operators, owners, franchisees or the franchisor, will claim that they were unaware that their employees or agents had previously committed massage parlor sexual abuse, and therefore were unfit to be hired, or needed close supervision or training. They may argue that because they were unaware of this previous history, they are therefore not liable for the actions of their employees. Unfortunately for them, this argument falls flat. Courts in California apply a reasonableness standard to the conduct of employers such as massage parlor operators. This means that courts impose a duty on massage parlor operators to do what a “reasonable” massage parlor operator or operator would do given the circumstances.

For example, given the nature of the services to be provided, it would likely not be reasonable for a massage parlor operator to fail to investigate whether that employee had been charged or convicted with sexual abuse prior to hiring the employee. The employer would, therefore, be liable for the employee’s actions, even if the employer had actually failed to do such an investigation. It would similarly be unreasonable for an employer who had actual knowledge of the employee’s sexual misconduct to fail to investigate this misconduct further or to continue employing this same employee in a position where he or she could continue to abuse customers.

Related: Sexual Assault at Massage Envy Parlor: Your Rights

After a massage parlor abuse victim is able to prove that those in charge of the massage parlor both had a duty to protect against the sort of injury alleged, and failed to fulfill this duty, the victim must show causation: that is, but for the massage parlor’s negligence, the injury would not have occurred. In many massage parlor abuse cases, this is quite obvious: for example, had the employer fired the employee prior to the massage, the abuse would not have occurred.

Finally, the victim must show actual damages from the massage parlor abuse. Although in sexual abuse cases, victims quite frequently suffer from extensive and sustained emotional distress, actual damages, such as evidence of the physical contact made by the massage therapist, must be shown.

Victims may also be entitled to damages beyond merely so-called compensatory damages (money to compensate the victim for medical bills, and emotional and other distress). For example, if it can be shown that the massage parlor has a history of employing sexual predators, or has failed to investigate similar cases in the past, or that the employee in question has had a history of sexual abuse, a court may impose so-called punitive damages. These are damages intended to punish the massage parlor. Recoveries in these cases can be quite substantial.

Victims of massage parlor misconduct and sexual abuse have many options under law to resolve what is often an enormously stressful, devastating interaction. The legal issues discussed here represent only a small fraction of the possible avenues of recovery for these victims. As suggested, the complexities involved in advocating for victims’ rights in these circumstances necessitate the need for an attorney who can both navigate the complex legal issues involved and can also zealously advocate on behalf of their client for the most complete and just recovery.

At The Thompson Law Office, we understand that massage parlor abuse can cause tremendous emotional damage and stress. Hiring a massage parlor abuse attorney to handle your case may seem to be an unaffordable extravagance completely out of the question in these circumstances that you cannot afford. But at The Thompson Law Office, anyone can afford our excellent legal representation. You will not receive a bill unless we win your case. If you don’t get paid, then neither do we; it’s just that simple.

If you feel you or a loved one has been the victim of massage parlor abuse, please contact Thompson Law Office for a free consultation from one of our massage parlor abuse lawyers to learn your rights and how we can help you.