For years, former President Donald Trump has managed to ward off a lawsuit brought against him by E. Jean Carroll, a writer and advice columnist, who says he raped her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s. When Carroll decided to come forward — describing the alleged attack in a 2019 book excerpt — Trump had been president for two years and the statute of limitations on indicting or bringing a lawsuit against him was long past. Carroll instead sued Trump for defamation, arguing he defamed her in statements to reporters in which he denied knowing her, accused her of fabricating her story to sell books and insulted her appearance — and was years before court tied. Fight off Justice Department interference and endless requests for delays.
Now, Carroll and thousands of other sexual assault survivors in upstate New York are getting a new chance to seek legal accountability against people who harmed them years or decades ago. Under the Adult Survivors Act, New Yorkers who were sexually assaulted as adults but no longer have time to face justice in court have a year-long “hindsight window” to sue their perpetrators, as well as institutions that were negligent in responding to the attack. While many states have experimented with flashback windows to allow victims of child sexual abuse to file civil claims, New York law is only the second time such a grace period has been extended to people who were adults at the time of the attack. (New Jersey was first.) In a way, the new law is an acknowledgment of the many barriers — lingering trauma, shame, and fear of retribution, not to mention ineffective policing — that have prevented survivors from bringing justice to justice. “The fight against sexual assault requires that we recognize the impact of trauma in our justice system,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at the signing of the bill
As of 2019, second- and third-degree rape survivors in New York state had just five years to get a prosecutor to file criminal charges against their attacker, and typically even less time to bring a civil suit. The statute of limitations was extended this year, but it did not apply retrospectively, meaning many survivors never had a chance for a court decision or settlement. “The Adult Survivors Act is the latest step in state legislatures’ reckoning with outdated and ineffective legal restrictions on survivors of sexual violence,” Michael Polenberg, vice president of government affairs at New York-based victim support group Safe Horizon, said in a recent webinar. Survivors have one year to file their lawsuits.
In 2019, New York opened a similar window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. By the time the window closed in 2021, nearly 11,000 lawsuits had been filed under the Child Victims Act, including 3,336 cases involving the Catholic Church. And while many are still ongoing, some settlements have been reached: Prince Andrew, an associate of Jeffrey Epstein, settled a Child Victims Act complaint brought by Virginia Giuffre in February, weeks before he was due to sit for testimony about her abuse allegation. While most lawsuits were filed against relatively well-funded institutions that allegedly covered up or facilitated abuse, some survivors filed lawsuits against individuals: a former Lutheran pastor, an elementary school teacher, and others. A plaintiff who won a $25 million jury verdict against a Boy Scout leader, now 80, said a Buffalo News Reporter in March that the verdict is not meaningful because of the money because the jury believed him and confirmed experience. “I probably won’t get a penny from it, but if I put a dollar amount on it, people know how awful it was,” he said.
As the Child Victims Act’s review period came to an end in 2021, survivor advocates went to great lengths to get similar legislation passed for adult victims. One obstacle: intransigence in the state assembly as former governor Andrew Cuomo still clung to power amid a spate of allegations of sexual assault and harassment. It took until May 24 of this year – months after Cuomo stepped down from the governorship – for the law to be passed and signed by Governor Kathy Hochul. (Whether Cuomo could face a lawsuit under the new law is unclear; Charlotte Bennett, a former aide who was one of the first to take action against the governor, has since had her lawsuit against Cuomo and his top executives dispensed with the statute of limitations had not yet expired.)
As with the Child Victims Act, hundreds if not thousands of cases are expected to flood the state court system before long. One law firm, Slater Slater and Schulman, has previously announced it will represent at least 750 formerly incarcerated women accused of systematic sexual abuse in New York’s prison and prison systems. According to the firm, which works with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is known for representing the families of black victims, state or county governments have failed to stop correctional officers from sexually abusing women while they are incarcerated, though they knew abuse was taking place police violence.
For example, a 1985 Correctional Association of New York report found a pattern of “forced sexual contact” by the mostly male staff at Bayview, a medium-security prison in Manhattan, where officers “threatened prisoners with disciplinary action or removal from a program if they refused to engage in sexual activity.” But in the years that followed, the abuse allegedly continued: Jacquiline Wiggins, now a 58-year-old nurse, said so New York Times that a Bayview guard repeatedly raped her while she was incarcerated there in the 1990s. She says she still remembers the guard’s haircut, body odor and teeth, but hasn’t told anyone in the years since — until she found out about New York’s new law. “I suppressed it,” Wiggins said Times. “I kept it in my stomach. I didn’t think I was worthy. I didn’t think anyone would care.” She is now one of 200 Bayview plaintiffs suing under the Adult Survivors Act.
As for Carroll, her attorney told a federal judge in September that they would be filing a lawsuit in New York when the rearview window opens. A preliminary version of their lawsuit, filed in court last week, accuses the former battery president, saying his conduct amounted to first-degree rape.
“We’re finally at the point where we’re going to be storming the courts with these really important cases,” Victims’ Rights Advocate Carrie Goldberg said on the Safe Horizon webinar, where she briefed survivors on the new law. On Monday, Goldberg’s firm announced it would be working with employment attorney Susan Crumiller to file cases under the new law – an initiative they call the Survivors Law Project. Litigation isn’t for everyone, Goldberg warns: It can be an emotionally draining, grueling process with “the person who may have caused you the greatest trauma of your life.”
The new law, says Goldberg, is not only important for her as a lawyer. She is also considering filing a lawsuit under the Adult Survivors Act herself. “I weigh exactly what our customers do,” she says. “How will this affect me emotionally? energetic? My time? What supports do I have?” She decided to go through the admissions process in her own company to show all her options. “Just because I know the law,” she says, “doesn’t mean that the emotional drain of litigating for something traumatic is any different than what our clients go through.”