RAPE VICTIMS' STRONG SUIT: NEGLIGENT LANDLORDS ARE UNDER ATTACK
New York Daily News, February 6, 1989
HISTORICALLY, THE only legal decision most rape victims made
following an attack was whether to file criminal charges against
their attackers. Now, however, counselors and service professionals
are wielding a new anti-rape weapon - civil suits brought against
negligent owners or managers of a crime site.
Two women who were sexually assaulted on the roof of the Helmsley
Parkchester complex in the Bronx last month, for example, settled
their suit against the landlord for $575,000.
The most recent outrage in the news was the alleged rape Jan. 21 of
a Metropolitan Hospital patient by a hospital aide and security
guard while she lay helpless on a stretcher.
When Madeline Bryer, a social worker at Columbia Presbyterian
Medical Center, was sexually assaulted in her upper East Side
apartment by a building employee who entered with her spare set of
keys in 1979, she brought suit against the landlord for having taken
inadequate precautions to protect her. Bryer settled out of court
for a sum that put her through Brooklyn Law School. Now 41. Bryer is
a member of the Mayor's Task Force Against Sexual Assault and
specializes in personal injury suits with a personal meaning-
representing women who have been raped on "unsecured" (unsafe)
Lona Siegel, director of the Rape Crisis Intervention Project at
Mount Sinai Hospital says the litigation trend isn't a result of
misplaced blame or opportunistic victims seeking to soak an innocent
"The more landlords you sue, the more landlords will take safety
precautions to protect their tenants," Siegel says.
Eileen Ross, a blind victim of "the Spiderman Rapist," whose 1986
spree of terror devastated residents of Brooklyn and the upper East
Side, had pestered Glenwood Management Corp. for months to repair
the broken window lock in her "luxury" apartment that rapist Tyrone
Graham used for entry. She settled out of court last October for an
ample sum that legal documents forbid her from revealing. Ross, who
used the interest of her settlement money to move to Oregon, says
defendants condition a settlement on a plaintiff's silence "as a
means of control, to prevent others from filing suits against
landlords who are responsible for them having been raped."
As the stigma of sexual assault fades and legal information is
disseminated, more women are willing to wrestle before the bench
with derelict landlords, employers, colleges and other institutions.
A frequent speaker at rape prevention seminars, Bryer is now
representing a woman who says she was raped in an unpoliced, co-ed
bathroom of a well-known nightclub. Another client was raped in
public housing: "Her intercom hadn't been working for months. There
was no phone-just a wire sticking out of the wall-and the door lock
PROPONENTS OF civil suits argue that financial penalties goad owners
into maintaining safe premises more effectively than legislation.
Landlords may ignore small fines for code violations, says Bryer,
but when socked for $450,000 in damages for failing to install a
$100 lock, they are motivated to mend the premises.
"It doesn't take away the nightmare, but after having had all your
power and control taken away. (a civil suit) gives some back,"
Siegel says. Besides financing medical and psychological treatment,
a spit can be psychologically healing, she notes.
Bryer was motivated to represent such victims after her own
experience: "People brag about living in a doorman building, but ...
there's no assurance a landlord or property manager has screened
employees to see if they have sex (or other) crimes in their
backgrounds." Her attacker had a record of sex crimes.
Because personal injury attorneys work on contingency (usually
taking up to a third of any winnings), victims, regardless of income
level, can afford to pursue an action if they find a lawyer to
accept their case. However, victims say that, while winning a suit
can be a cause for exultation, the proceedings themselves can
compound a woman's post-traumatic stress.
Women, Know Your Rights
CIVIL SUITS against the owners of a crime site are just one facet of
victims fighting back at the bench. Vie-tints are also suing
employers who fail to screen employees for criminal records, and, in
some cases. the rapists themselves.
Advocates say more victims would sue if informed of their legal
rights. "Everybody from the middle class on up thinks in terms of
lawyers, but the poor are disenfranchised from this concept," says
lawyer Madeline Bryer.
Those who want to file civil suits, adds Bryer, "need to be aware
there are time limits. They don't have a cause of action
indefinitely and they may lose their right to sue." The statute of
limitations when suing state and city agencies, for example, is much
shorter than for private concerns.
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