NEW YORK (Reuters) - Whether IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is convicted or acquitted of trying to rape a maid at New York’s Sofitel Hotel, a civil suit by the alleged victim could follow the criminal charge.
In theory the suit could target the IMF and the hotel, but legal experts said it would be difficult to assign civil liability to anyone other than Strauss-Kahn.
Jeffrey Shapiro, the maid’s lawyer, told Reuters “there has been no discussion” of a civil lawsuit.
“It’s not contemplated and it’s not been discussed,” he said. “I’m helping her get through each day.”
Strauss-Kahn, known for his lavish lifestyle and the multiple million-dollar homes he shares with his wife, is seen as an ideal target in any potential suit.
“If it’s found that the attack occurred, the case is worth well over a million dollars,” said Jonathan Damashek, a personal injury attorney who has represented rape victims.
Damashek, a partner at the law firm Hecht Kleeger Pintel & Damashek, added that the maid, a resident of the Bronx, could win more damages if she files a case in her own borough rather than in Manhattan, where the alleged incident occurred.
“A Bronx jury will be more sympathetic to what happened to her,” said Damashek.
A criminal case requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. By contrast, the victim in a civil case involving a sexual assault only has to show that the assault occurred by a preponderance of evidence — or more than half.
Even with this lower standard, plaintiffs in civil cases involving sexual assault charges face other challenges.
“Every single case has a built-in ‘they’re in it for the money’ defense that civil litigators have to deal with,” said John Clune, an attorney with the Victim Justice law firm, which represents victims of sexual assault.
In sexual assault cases involving high-profile figures, related civil litigation frequently follows the criminal investigation. In 2005, professional basketball star Kobe Bryant settled a civil lawsuit related to allegations that he raped a 20-year-old woman after prosecutors dropped a criminal investigation. Details of the settlement were kept private.
In addition to seeking money damages for pain and suffering, the victim could ask for costs related to any therapy she may require and for any medical costs that she has incurred or will incur in the future. She could also seek punitive damages.
When seeking punitive damages in a civil suit over a sexual assault, a plaintiff can ask for information about the defendant’s wealth, which can inform how much a jury awards a plaintiff.
Some attorneys argue that the IMF could also be named in any potential suit, especially if it is determined that Strauss-Kahn was on official business while staying at the hotel.
“He’s the highest person in the corporation and I would argue that he and the corporation are alter egos and therefore (the) IMF would be liable,” said David Ratner, a plaintiffs’ attorney at Morelli Ratner.
The Sofitel could also be on the hook if it is determined that hotel management was aware of previous complaints about Strauss-Kahn and did not protect a member of its cleaning staff, some litigators said.
But many experts said that assigning liability to the IMF or the hotel would be a stretch — and that adding those defendants could also needlessly complicate the case.
“When we handle cases, we try to take the path of least resistance,” said Arthur Luxenberg, a personal-injury attorney with the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm. “If I have the opportunity to prove my case against one person who has a ton of money, why would I want to bring in extraneous parties?”
Reporting by Andrew Longstreth, Noeleen Walder, and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jesse Wegman