Wave of sex abuse lawsuits seen as New York opens door for victims
Sexual assault victims in New York will get a one-time opportunity to sue over their abuse starting Thursday, under a new law expected to bring a wave of allegations against prison guards, middle managers, doctors and a few prominent figures including former President Donald Trump.
For one year the state will waive the normal deadlines for filing lawsuits over sex crimes, enabling survivors to seek compensation for assaults that happened years or even decades ago.
Advocates say the Adult Survivors Act is an important step in the national reckoning over sexual misconduct and could provide a measure of justice to people who may have needed time to come forward due to trauma, embarrassment or fear of retaliation.
“I feel like I’ve been in jail for almost three decades,” said Liz Stein, 49, who said she was abused by the millionaire and notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein when she was a young woman. “And it’s more than time for me and the other victims to be free of that prison that we’ve been in, and for the people who are accountable to be held accountable.”
The law is modeled after the state’s Child Victims Act, which opened a two-year window in 2019 during which almost 11,000 people sued churches, hospitals, schools, camps, scout groups and other institutions over abuse they said they suffered as children.
Most states that have opened such windows did so only for people abused as children, though New Jersey's included adults.
New York will begin accepting electronic filings on Thanksgiving Day, six months after the law was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Lawyers say they have been getting calls from people considering lawsuits, mostly women.
“I think there will be a lot of women who will say, ‘I think that’s me. Because I think what happened at that Christmas party in 1998 wasn’t right. And I couldn’t tell anybody about it at the time.’ And they want to tell somebody about it,” attorney Jeanne Christensen said.
Legal action has already been promised on behalf of hundreds of women who say they were sexually abused while serving sentences at state prisons.
Other cases could come from college students assaulted by professors, athletes abused by coaches or workers assaulted by bosses.
A lawsuit against Trump is expected from E. Jean Carroll, a longtime advice columnist for Elle magazine who said he raped her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s.
Trump denies the allegation, saying Carroll made it up to sell a book. Carroll is already suing Trump for defamation, saying his denials and disparaging comments to the media damaged her reputation.
Claims can be made against negligent institutions and the estates of dead people. Some are expected from women who were inspired to come forward by the #MeToo movement, only to be told that too much time had passed to take legal action.
It’s unclear there will be as many lawsuits as were filed under the Child Victims Act. That law attracted many lawyers because of the possibility of verdicts against deep-pocketed institutions involved in caring for or educating children.
Stein's lawsuit, to be filed by her lawyer, Margaret Mabie, will be against Epstein's longtime companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, and other parties. Stein was working at a shop in Manhattan in 1994 when she met Maxwell, who introduced her to Epstein.
Maxwell is serving a 20-year sentence for helping Epstein sexually abuse underage girls. Maxwell's attorneys did not immediately respond to an email request for comment. Epstein killed himself in jail in 2019 after his arrest on sex trafficking charges.
In addition to the high-profile claims, there will be “many, many more” cases that don’t get publicity, said Liz Roberts, CEO of the victim assistance nonprofit Safe Horizon. Roberts said that for many survivors, just telling their story can be healing.
“I’m just finding my voice, and I’m learning how powerful that can be,” said Laurie Maldonado, one of scores of women who say they were molested during examinations by New York City gynecologist Robert Hadden.
Hadden surrendered his medical license after being convicted in 2016 on sex-related charges in state court. He has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sexually abusing many young and unsuspecting female patients for over two decades.
The medical institutions that employed Hadden, Columbia University Irving Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian, have already resolved claims by 225 women, including one group of 147 that recently settled for $165 million. They said in a statement that they remain open to settling other claims "irrespective of the Adult Survivors Act.”
While the Child Victims Act received a lot of publicity when its window opened in 2019, some advocates are worried too few people are aware of the one opening for adults.
Safe Horizon last week launched a public awareness campaign featuring survivors, including a public service announcement and a news conference in Times Square.
“We’re just keenly aware that a year is a short time,” Roberts said.