A trickle of high-profile sexual abuse lawsuits passing through New York’s civil courts is likely to become a flood in the coming months because of a new, one-year window for time-expired claims.
Already, some bold-faced names from the worlds of arts, finance and politics have become involved, including Donald Trump and banker Leon Black.
A broad legislative sweep, the New York Adult Survivors Act, allows for adult survivors to file lawsuits and for the alleged abusers or their estates, as well as businesses and institutions that enabled the conduct by ignoring or encouraging an environment that allowed the assaults to occur, to be held financially liable.
The number of claims that will be filed is unknown. But under a previous window allowing claims beyond the statute of limitations to be brought by survivors who were minors at the time of the alleged incidents, as many as 11,000 claims were filed over the course of two years.
Since the look-back bill was introduced on Thanksgiving Day, several notable claims have already been filed.
Leon Black, the billionaire co-founder of private equity firm Apollo, was accused by Cheri Pierson of raping her two decades ago in the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s Manhattan mansion. Epstein’s estate is named as a defendant. That case comes on top of a separate civil claim by Guzel Ganieva who accused Black of falsely claiming she tried to extort him after she accused him of rape.
In another claim filed this week, a former talent scout at Atlantic Records sued the label and the estate of its founder, the late Ahmed Ertegun, for sexual assault. Jan Roeg alleges that Atlantic knew and took a “laissez-faire” approach about Ertegun’s misconduct.
In a new, upgraded lawsuit against Donald Trump, former Elle columnist E Jean Carroll maintains the former president committed battery “when he forcibly raped and groped her” – and that he defamed her when he denied raping her last month.
“Trump’s underlying sexual assault severely injured Carroll, causing significant pain and suffering, lasting psychological harms, loss of dignity, and invasion of her privacy,” the suit alleges.
Carroll’s attorney, Roberta Kaplan, said at a court hearing that her client “intends to hold Donald Trump accountable not only for defaming her, but also for sexually assaulting her, which he did years ago in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman”.
Trump has denied the allegations against him.
Claims have also been brought against JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank by lawyers acting for unnamed individuals who accuse the banks of turning a blind eye to alleged sex trafficking by the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein in order to “churn profits”. A Deutsche Bank spokesperson said the claim “lacks merit”.
According to Bradley Edwards, a Florida lawyer who has featured prominently in exposing Epstein’s conduct, “Epstein and his co-conspirators could not have victimized without assistance from wealthy individuals and financial institutions”.
Also anticipated are lawsuits on the behalf of about 40 women, who claim they were subjected to unlawful sexual abuse by former Columbia University gynaecologist Dr Robert Hadden. About 150 claims against the gynaecologist have already been settled.
Hundreds more lawsuits may now also be forthcoming, including individuals who claim they were assaulted by co-workers, prison guards or medical providers, in part because it allows an institution like a hospital or jail to be held responsible.
Opening the adult window for claims precludes cases involving minors that were covered by a previous law incentivized by a backlog of claims against the Catholic church. Under that law, hundreds of others came through, including claims again Boy Scouts of America, Kevin Spacey and Britain’s Prince Andrew.
Under the new law, says Wendy Murphy, a former federal sex crime prosecutor who teaches at New England Law | Boston, some of the cases could be the kind lawyers typically don’t want to take because force wasn’t physically used.
“We could see more cases like Weinstein – adult women over the age of 18 who in certain circumstances submitted or felt coerced because of who the perpetrator was”, Murphy says.
The adult law came into effect on 24 November, after being passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul in May. Bridie Farrell, a lawyer who worked on the child and adult acts, points out that when it comes to sexual assault, it often takes time for people to come forward.
“After the success of the child victims act, after the #MeToo movement, and the people who came forward to voice abuse and assault that took place years ago, this allows people to access the justice system. It takes a lot of moral conviction to come forward.”
The legislature doesn’t just open up lawsuits for benevolent reasons … They do it because there’s money to be had.
Wendy Murphy, a former federal sex crime prosecutor
But Murphy says there are other factors at play, too. “The legislature doesn’t just decide to open up lawsuits for benevolent reasons because they think it’s morally and ethically the right thing to do. They do it because there’s money to be had, and a lot of lawmakers are lawyers or work for law firms.”
“It’s very well understood there’s been a conversation about how much money this is going to generate,” Murphy adds, “and corporate America is going to be very nervous about this, because of the higher likelihood that they have exposure now the clock is restarting.”
By some estimations, the adult window could be a far larger legal category than the child law, especially as the legal system has traditionally been less accommodating to adult claims that were late in reporting. Some legal experts think the money issue could come to prominence as the floodgates open.
“The only question now is does the lawyer think the client is telling the truth and does the defendant have any money,” said Murphy. “Where the lobbying impetus came from to enact, the law will probably present itself. Just watch what cases get filed and you’ll get that answer pretty quickly.”
The topic has already surfaced in the Black case. Susan Estrich, a lawyer for Black, called Pierson’s lawsuit “categorically false and part of a scheme to extort money from Mr. Black by threatening to destroy his reputation.”
Both claims – Pierson and Ganieva – against Black were brought by Wigdow, a law firm in New York that has brought dozens of sexual abuse claims, including the ones involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Harvey Weinstein, and says on its website that it has won more than $1bn for it its clients.
Trial lawyers are the ones that are willing to help get some kind of societal change.
Bridie Farrell, a lawyer who worked on the New York sexual abuse acts
Wigdor partner Jeanne Christensen said her firm looked “forward to holding Black and Epstein’s estate accountable for their appalling unlawful conduct as alleged in the complaint by our client”.
Farrell pushes back on any idea that money is a motivating factor. “Trial lawyers are the ones that are willing to help get some kind of societal change. People are meeting with institutions to try to get them to do systematic change and institutions don’t change until we go through a legal process and provide them with enough economic incentive,” she said.