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E. Jean Carroll Verdict May Inspire Sexual-Assault Survivors to Pursue Lawsuits, Advocates Say

The Wall Street Journal
By Jennifer Calfas
May 10, 2023

A federal jury’s verdict finding Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll may persuade others to bring cases against their alleged abusers under a New York law, advocates and state lawmakers say.

Ms. Carroll’s civil case against Mr. Trump marked the first high-profile test of the New York Adult Survivors Act, which opened a one-year window for people who say they were sexually abused as adults to file claims related to instances of rape, incest or sexual abuse, no matter when the alleged incidents occurred. Mr. Trump has denied wrongdoing.

Since the law took effect in November, 135 plaintiffs have filed 106 lawsuits in New York state court, according to court officials.

The verdict Tuesday against Mr. Trump was validating for survivors of sexual abuse—even as it highlighted the complicated nature of seeking accountability for alleged abuses that occurred decades ago, lawyers who work with sexual-abuse survivors said.

“I can’t tell you the joy and the support that this signals,” said Ann Olivarius, who said she is working with dozens of women who may bring claims under the New York law. “Maybe society is ready now to start to tackle this problem.”

The Adult Survivors Act was passed in New York’s Democratic-led Legislature last year. Advocates who pushed for the law said it was necessary because survivors of sexual abuse often process their experience over years, and may only feel ready to bring related claims at a later date, sometimes well past the statutes of limitations.

“I was proud to sign the Adult Survivors Act so brave survivors like E. Jean Carroll could have their day in court,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said in a post on Twitter after the verdict Tuesday. “This law gives survivors the right to have their voices heard.”

The legal standard for Ms. Carroll to prevail was lower than that needed in a criminal case, in which a defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Were Ms. Carroll’s claims tried as a criminal case, it is likely Mr. Trump may not have been convicted since the evidence didn’t meet that burden of proof, said Caroline Polisi, a criminal defense attorney and lecturer at Columbia Law School. As a civil case, jurors more likely assessed the claims and defense on credibility, she said.

“There’s a very big difference between holding somebody liable from a monetary standpoint and convicting in a criminal court,” Ms. Polisi said. “Nonetheless, it’s hugely significant.”

“This is exactly what the ASA was meant to do,” she added, referring to the law.

The expected wave of lawsuits predicted by advocates after the law was enacted largely hasn’t materialized. The state’s Child Victims Act, which temporarily lifted civil statutes of limitations for child sex-abuse claims, resulted in more than 10,000 suits filed.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who sponsored the legislation, said Wednesday they expect more adult abuse survivors to file cases before the look-back window expires on Nov. 24. The federal jury’s verdict Tuesday might inspire even more to do so, they said.

The high-profile case may spur survivors who were previously unaware of the law to pursue legal action, according to Liz Roberts, chief executive of Safe Horizon. The nonprofit victim-assistance organization lobbied for the law.

“It’s affirming to see you’re not alone,” Ms. Roberts said. “It’s affirming to see another survivor show that courage and authenticity, and to speak to the impact of sexual assault. I think so many survivors have been told to get on with your life and get over it.”

Ms. Carroll, a longtime advice columnist, filed a lawsuit against Mr. Trump under the Adult Survivors Act last year. She alleged the former president raped her in a Manhattan department store nearly 30 years ago. Ms. Carroll testified in graphic detail about the 1990s encounter at Bergdorf Goodman during the two-week civil trial in Manhattan.

Ms. Carroll, 79 years old, said she was inspired to come forward by the #MeToo movement. She had advocated for the passage of the New York law that eventually allowed her to bring civil claims against Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump, who has denied the allegations, didn’t testify in the trial or attend any of the proceedings in person. In a videotaped deposition under oath, he accused Ms. Carroll of fabricating the allegations for publicity and political reasons. His lawyers argued her allegations were inconsistent and that she hadn’t behaved like a rape victim at the time or in the years since.

Mr. Trump, who is seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, called the verdict a disgrace in a social-media post Tuesday. Joe Tacopina, the lead lawyer for Mr. Trump, said he would appeal.

The nine-member jury, consisting of six men and three women, didn’t find Mr. Trump committed rape but found it more likely than not he sexually abused Ms. Carroll in a dressing room at the Manhattan store sometime around 1996. The jury also found Mr. Trump defamed her in comments he made denying her allegations, which she first made publicly in 2019.

Civil cases, including those related to allegations of sexual abuse, don’t often make it to trial. In cases examined years after an alleged event, memories of exact dates or details may fade and there can be challenges identifying witnesses and corroborating evidence, according to lawyers who have represented sexual-abuse survivors.

“The way that she testified and the way that she was authentic about who she is, what this was like for her, and what she can and can’t remember, was a really solid way to handle and just an authentic way to handle it,” said lawyer Michelle Simpson Tuegel of Ms. Carroll.

Ms. Tuegel said she plans to bring cases under the New York law on behalf of a number of clients. “I try to prepare my clients in a similar way,” she said.

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