A federal Appeals Court in Massachusetts recently handed down a ruling that may provide a way for victims of sex abuse to receive compensation – but probably not in the way that the victims originally envisioned.
By now, most Americans are probably aware that a large number of women have come forward and publicly accused entertainer Bill Cosby of sexually abusing them. Many of them claim that Cosby drugged them before taking advantage of them sexually.
Several of the women (and mostly those from states that have the generous Statutes of Limitation laws concerning sexual abuse cases) filed suit against Mr. Cosby seeking money damages. Apparently, Mr. Cosby had personal/homeowner’s insurance coverage with AIG Insurance at the time of several of the alleged incidents of abuse, so he turned over the claims of the women to AIG and asked the company to defend him and to settle the ladies’ claims or pay any judgment that might be entered against him. This is the essence of any insurance contract, after all. Insurance won’t cover everything that bad that happens, obviously, but you don’t know unless you ask.
Insurance is often a critical issue in sexual abuse cases. In our experience handling cases for victims of sexual abuse of all ages over the past 25 years, it is commonplace for individual perpetrators/sexual abusers/predators to be people of very modest means, and therefore little or no ability to pay money damages to a victim of sex abuse, and very, very rarely an amount commensurate with the damage that has been inflicted. Many, many times we find ourselves turning down very meritorious cases because there is no source of compensation (which is the role that insurance plays if an insurance company can be forced to provide coverage.)
In the Cosby sex abuse case, AIG fairly quickly disavowed any duty to defend Mr. Cosby, or pay any money on his behalf, on the basis that Mr. Cosby’s policy excluded claims presented by victims of sex abuse.
This is where the case gets interesting from a lawyer’s perspective.
DEFAMATION SEPARATE FROM SEX ABUSE
When the women first announced their sex abuse claims against Mr. Cosby, he lashed out at them publicly, disparaged them, and called them liars. He may even have called the women who couldn’t present sex abuse claims against him liars.
By making this kind of public pronouncement against the women, Mr. Cosby arguably defamed all of them. Once this occurred, Mr. Cosby legally opened himself up to additional exposure to damages. Now, each of the women arguably had a claim (or additional claim, if they had valid, pending sex abuse claims) for defamation. As a result, Cosby turned again to AIG and asked the company to defend him (and pay damages) arising out of his allegedly defamatory statements.
AIG initially attempted to deny also deny coverage for the defamatory comments, but according to to this story, a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in early June 2018, that AIG is obligated to at least provide Mr. Cosby a legal defense against the defamation claims.
The Court did not reach the question of whether AIG will actually have to pay damages, but it would seem that the accusing victims of sex abuse now have a much better shot at receiving compensation from AIG than ever before. This is important because — even though Mr. Cosby may well be a wealthy man — it is not uncommon for wealthy defendants in cases like this one to try to file for bankruptcy, or to arrange their assets in such a way that their money cannot be accessed by a judgement holder.
It would appear that — in the right kind of case, where an accused sexual abuser is particularly outspoken about the allegations against him — this recent ruling the Cosby case may ultimately be helpful to victims of sex abuse here in Florida.
If you have any questions about a Florida sex abuse case call Winter Park attorneys Kim Cullen and Robert Hemphill at 407-254-4901.