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How Donald Trump’s sex abuse verdict is paving the way for countless women to hold powerful men to account

E Jean Carroll is among more than 130 women who have taken on their alleged abusers under New York’s Adult Survivors Act. Her historic victory against Donald Trump is inspiring even more accusers to come forward, Bevan Hurley reports

Tuesday 23 May 2023 16:12 BST
(Getty/The Independent)

An ex-president, a disgraced comedian, a world heavyweight boxing champion, a deceased music mogul and a former New York City mayor.

In the six months since New York passed the Adult Survivors Act, which removed the statute of limitations for certain sexual misconduct, powerful men from the worlds of politics, business, entertainment and sport have had to answer their accusers in civil court.

In many cases allegations about their misconduct had been well known for decades, however the accusers had no legal recourse to pursue litigation and were often fearful of retaliation.

“There has been silencing of sexual assault survivors throughout history, but when the person who commits the sexual assault is wealthy, powerful, famous they have even more tools to silence the person they harmed,” Liz Roberts, chief executive of victim advocacy non-profit Safe Horizon, told The Independent in an interview.

“So the Adult Survivors Act really does help to level the playing field by opening up a window, by recognising that trauma takes time.”

The law, which opened a one-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits against individuals or institutions in New York regardless of when the alleged crime took place, was viewed as an important step in the reckoning over sexual assault and misconduct that exploded onto the national consciousness in 2017.

And since E Jean Carroll won a liable verdict earlier this month for sexual assault and defamation by Donald Trump, a “surge” of women have come forward to explore filing lawsuit, attorneys representing survivors say.

“We have had a tangible and highly unusual uptick in victims who came to us years ago, and decided not to pursue a case, coming back in the past week to explore their options,” Carrie Goldberg, co-founder of Survivors Law Project, told The Independent.

E Jean Carroll leaves a New York federal courthouse after being awarded $5m for sexual assault and defamation from Donald Trump (Associated Press)

Ms Carroll told Insider this week that she had been contacted by “hundreds” of survivors asking for advice on how to sue their alleged advisors.

Since the act came into force on 24 November, 136 plaintiffs have filed 106 lawsuits, according to figures provided by the New York Office of Court Administration.

And halfway through the 12-month window in which survivors can file lawsuits, advocates and attorneys expect that figure to rise significantly as the November deadline approaches.

The Adult Survivors Act was modelled on the 2019 Child Victims Act (CVA), which saw nearly 11,000 people sue individuals and institutions such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and school districts over the abuse they suffered as children.

The initial two-year window for cases to be filed was extended for 12 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lawsuits are expected to be filed against institutions by women who suffered alleged abuse at prisons, churches, schools, universities and healthcare providers.

Here, The Independent examines some of the high-profile cases that have been brought under the act.

Donald Trump

Former Elle advice columnist E Jean Carroll, who was awarded $5m by a jury after suing former president Donald Trump, was among the first to file a claim when the bill passed last November.

During her trial testimony, Ms Carroll explained that, like many survivors, she had been reluctant to come forward at the time as she felt ashamed, fearful of retribution, and blamed herself for being attacked by Mr Trump in the luxury Manhattan department store Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-90s.

Mr Trump’s attorney Joe Tacopina aggressively attempted to discredit Ms Carroll’s claims during the trial by questioning why she hadn’t gone to the police, screamed for help, or followed the advice she had given readers of her columns.

Trump’s lawyer Joe Tacopina questions E Jean Carroll during the sexual assault civil trial in New York earlier this month. (REUTERS)

His attitude seemed to come from a bygone era, ignoring the deeper understanding that society now has about the nature of sexual assault. The nine-member jury ultimately found the former president liable for battery and defamation. Mr Trump is appealing the verdict.

Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a prominent victims’ rights attorney, told The Independent that high-profile cases such as Ms Carroll’s often serve as catalysts for others to come forward with their own stories.

“E Jean Carroll’s courage and persistence pressing forward with her case against Donald Trump in the face of intense scrutiny sends a message that even the most powerful individuals can still be held accountable for their actions,” Ms Simpson Tuegel said.

Donald Trump told attorney Roberta Kaplan that she was ‘not his type’ during a sworn deposition played to the jury in the E Jean Carroll trial (Supplied)

“I hope this verdict gives other survivors the courage to seek justice against their abusers.”

Ms Goldberg, of the Survivors Law Project, told The Independent in a statement that the Carroll verdict had “emboldened survivors” to believe that a positive legal outcome was possible.

“It has sparked and renewed hope, and a belief in the unrivalled power of the civil justice system,” she said.

Ahmet Ertegun

Amid the first tranche of cases filed under the ASA was a sexual assault and harrassment claim against Atlantic Records and the estate of its founder Ahmet Ertegun.

Former talent scout Jan Roeg alleged in the lawsuit that Ertegun, who died in 2006, had targeted her years after she started working for the music label in 1984, according to Rolling Stone in November 2022.

Ms Roeg alleged in the lawsuit that the powerful music impresario had masturbated in front of her numerous times, digitally penetrated her and drugged her.

She further alleged that Atlantic Records had taken a  “laissez faire” approach in dealing with Ertegun’s misconduct.

Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, right, with legendary soul singer Wilson Pickett (Reuters)

A week later, a second former Atlantic Records employee Dorothy Carvello filed a lawsuit against Ertegun’s estate for battery, forcible touching, sexual abuse, criminal and civil conspiracy and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

In 2018, Ms Carvello released her memoir Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry, which detailed the abuse and daily sexual harassment she experienced from Ertegun.

Last year, Ms Carvello launched the Face The Music Now to support sexual abuse survivors in the music industry.

In a statement to Rolling Stone last fall, Atlantic’s owners Warner Music Group said that allegations of misconduct were being taken “very seriously”.

“These allegations date back nearly 40 years, to before WMG was a standalone company. We are speaking with people who were there at the time, taking into consideration that many key individuals are deceased or into their 80s or 90s,” the statement reads.

A spokesperson for Warner Music Group told The Independent they were unable to comment as the case was still before the courts.

A lawyer for Ertegun’s widow Mica Ertegun last year said that any claim against her was “meritless and will be vigorously defended”.

Ertegun founded Atlantic Records in 1947 with Herb Abramson, and released records by Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin and Ray Charles.

Bill Cosby

In December, five women with links to the entertainment industry filed a suit against Bill Cosby alleging they were abused or assaulted by him over a four-decade period.

The lawsuit also named NBC and television companies Kaufman Astoria Studios and Carsey-Werner Television as “culpable and liable” for the alleged sexual assaults.

All five of the accusers — Lili Bernard, Eden Tirl, Jewel Gittens, Jennifer Thompson and Cindra Ladd — met Cosby on set or through showbiz circles.

Bill Cosby has denied any wrongdoing after being sued by five women for sexual assault under the Adult Survivors Act (AP)

Jordan Rutsky, who is representing the five accusers, told The Independent Mr Cosby had only recently responded in court to the claims, and made a motion to dismiss the case.

All three companies named in their lawsuit had made motions to dismiss the lawsuit, which they have opposed.

“We’re fairly confident that we’re going to be successful,” he said.

He said that the New York court system, already dealing with a massive backlog of child sexual assault cases, faces a “monumental task” in dealing with the added wave of litigation.

“The court has been working really hard to deal with the backlog,” Mr Rutsky said in an interview.

“They’re difficult cases, there’s an emotional component, and the longer the cases last, the longer the survivors have to live in that moment and worry about how it is going to be resolved.”

Mr Cosby’s spokesperson Andrew Wyatt said in December that the “accusers have resurfaced to file a frivolous civil lawsuit” against the entertainer.

Cosby served nearly three years in prison before his 2018 conviction for sexual assault was overturned by the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court.

Jeffrey Epstein

In late December, two alleged victims of Jeffrey Epstein claimed in a civil suit they had been assaulted at the late paedophile’s Upper East Side townhouse after being hired to give him massages.

The cases were the first to be brought under the act against Epstein’s estate, after at least 10 were taken under the Child Survivor’s Act.

Epstein abused young girls for decades at his homes in New York, Florida, New Mexico and the US Virgin Islands.

Since his death in custody while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges in 2019, the disgraced paedophile’s estate has paid out more than $160m to over 125 victims of his sexual abuse.

Mike Tyson

In January, former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, 56, was accused of raping a woman in the early 1990s in a lawsuit filed under the Adult Survivors Act.

The woman said that she met Tyson at a nightclub in Albany, New York, and was later sexually assaulted in a limousine.

“I suffered and continue to suffer from physical, psychological and emotional injury,” said the victim, who is seeking $5m in damages, in an affidavit.

Mike Tyson is being sued by a woman who says she suffered ‘physical, psychological and emotional injury’ after being raped by the former boxer in the 1990s (AP)

The lawsuit does not specify a date that the alleged rape occurred. Tyson spent three years in prison after being convicted of raping a beauty pageant contestant in 1992.

The Independent contacted Tyson through an entertainment show he hosts, and the woman’s attorney Darren Seilback for comment. Neither responded.

Rudy Giuliani

On May 16, a former aide to Rudy Giuliani, 78, sued “America’s Mayor” for $10m alleging she had been forced to perform sexual acts while employed by him.

Noelle Dunphy, 43, alleges in the lawsuit that Mr Giuliani began the abuse soon after hiring her as a public relations consultant in January 2019. She alleged he would routinely pester her for sex, and bragged about being able to sell presidential pardons for $2m.

“He often demanded oral sex while he took phone calls on speakerphone from high-profile friends and clients, including then-President Trump. Giuliani told Ms Dunphy that he enjoyed engaging in this conduct while on the telephone because it made him ‘feel like Bill Clinton,’” the lawsuit states.

Rudy Giuliani ‘drank morning, noon, and night’ and took Viagra ‘constantly’, according to a lawsuit filed by his former aide Noelle Dunphy (Associated Press)

The former New York City mayor, who was central to Mr Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, “drank morning, noon, and night” and took Viagra “constantly”, Ms Dunphy alleges.

The lawsuit states that Mr Giuliani promised to pay her $1m a year and provide pro bono legal representation, but payment would have to be deferred until he had finalised his divorce from ex-wife Judith.

Ted Goodman, a spokesperson for Mr Giuliani, told The Independent last week that Mr Giuliani “unequivocally denies the allegations”.

New York Attorney General Letitia James

Even the state’s most powerful law enforcement officer hasn’t been immune from allegations of complicity.

In December, New York Attorney General Letitia James was sued for allegedly ignoring warnings about unwanted kissing allegations by her former deputy Chief of Staff Ibrahim Khan.

The suit, brought by a former deputy press secretary Sofia Quintanar, alleged Ms James and her office were aware that Mr Khan had a “propensity to sexually harass and to commit sexual assaults” and they were negligent in hiring and supervising him.

Letitia James said there were no excuses for her former chief of staff’s behaviour. (Associated Press)

Mr Khan, who resigned last November while he was being investigated for alleged sexual harassment, has denied wrongdoing.

Ms Quintanar told the New York Times that the Attorney General’s office should have been aware of his behaviour.

In an interview with NY1 last year, Ms James said she was disappointed with her former chief of staff.

“There is no excuse for his behaviour at all. None whatsoever. I believe these women,” she said.

The New York Attorney General’s office did not respond to a request for comment by The Independent.

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