For a year, a special New York law has cleared the way for a wave of headline-grabbing lawsuits against famous men accused of sexual misconduct, including former President Donald Trump, hip hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs and the comedian and actor Russell Brand.
But when the Adult Survivors Act expires after Thanksgiving, it also will have led to a multitude of legal claims by women who say they were sexually abused while serving time in New York’s prisons and jails.
More than 2,500 lawsuits have been filed so far under the law, which created a year-long suspension of the usual time limit to sue over an alleged sexual assault.
Some of those lawsuits have targeted employers, or institutions such as hospitals, accused of failing to do enough to stop abuse by doctors or other workers. The large majority, though, have been filed against the state, New York City and local counties and involve allegations of abuse at state prisons and local jail systems.
Survivors called it an opportunity to finally be heard.
“For so long, I didn’t have a voice. And it didn’t matter, I thought. Like, who was I?” said Alexandria Johnson, who says she was raped multiple times while incarcerated in state prison and a New York City jail. “I have to keep going forward with this because it matters. ... There’s so many stories, so many, not just mine.”
After Thursday, people will once again be barred from suing over abuse that happened many years ago.
New York was one of several states to revisit laws in recent years that set time limits for civil legal claims stemming from sexual assaults, though usually for people abused as children. Advocates say New York’s current window gives traumatized adults a chance to seek accountability from big institutions and powerful men who can use their wealth and position to shield themselves.
“The reason we fought so hard for this bill is because trauma takes time,” Safe Horizon CEO Liz Roberts said.
Precise counts for Adult Survivor Act filings were not yet available this week, but there were at least 2,587 electronic filings in state courts, with some lawsuits filed on behalf of multiple people. More than half those filings were prison-related claims against the state. Hundreds of additional filings named New York City’s corrections department.
The act was modeled after a previous New York law offering people abused as children a temporary window to file claims. By the time the Child Victims Act’s two-year window closed in August 2021, almost 11,000 people filed lawsuits, many involving the Roman Catholic Church.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said the initial law “forgot” people who suffered the same type of abuse as adults. She signed a new law opening a one-year window for adult survivors on Nov. 24, 2022.
A series of high-profile lawsuits followed.
One of the first filed after the window opened was against Trump. A jury in May found the former president liable for sexually abusing writer E. Jean Carroll in 1996 and awarded her $5 million. Trump has denied the allegation.
Harvey Weinstein was sued last month by actress Julia Ormond, who accused the former film producer of sexually assaulting her in 1995 and then hindering her career. Weinstein, who has been convicted of rape in New York and California, denied the allegations through his lawyer.
Grammy-winning music executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid was sued by Drew Dixon, who worked for Reid when he was chief executive of Arista Records. She says Reid sexually assaulted her twice in 2001, including an incident on a private plane. No attorney for Reid was listed in electronic filings.
Combs was accused in a lawsuit by R&B singer Cassie last week of subjecting her to a long-term relationship that included beatings and rape. The two artists announced a settlement a day after the filing. Combs denied the allegations.
Brand was accused in a lawsuit of sexually assaulting a film extra during the making of “Arthur” in 2010. British media outlets in September published claims by four women who said they were sexually assaulted by Brand, who says his relationships were “always consensual.”
Bill Cosby was accused in a lawsuit of sexually assaulting a young comedy writer more than 50 years ago. Joan Tarshis initially made the allegations against Cosby in 2014 that are in the new lawsuit. A Cosby spokesperson did not address the specifics of Tarshis’s claims, but asked of the recent lawsuits against famous men: “When is it going to stop?”
The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they were sexually assaulted unless they consent to being identified or decide to tell their stories publicly, as Carroll, Ormond, Dixon, Tarshis and Cassie have done.
Many more lawsuits allege assaults by relatively unknown people at everyday locations. One woman claimed in a lawsuit against a spa that she was fondled by a masseuse. Another woman who checked in airline passengers sued her employer over abuse by a manager.
The surge of lawsuits alleging assaults behind bars illustrates what attorney Adam Slater called a “widespread and systemic” issue of assaults on inmates. His firm said it made more than 1,200 filings alleging abuse in state prisons and more than 470 alleging abuse at New York City’s Rikers Island complex.
Anna Kull, who represents Johnson, expects to file up to 600 cases related to assaults in prisons and jails.
“Just a staggering amount of cases where male correctional officers were sexually assaulting female inmates,” Kull said.
Johnson’s lawsuit against New York City says she was raped in her Rikers Island cell by four corrections officers in 2014 while being held for a parole violation on a drug charge. A separate claim against the state said she was raped several times by a guard in 2015 at a state prison north of the city while she was pregnant. The lawsuit says the last assault caused her water to break prematurely and led to the loss of her baby.
Johnson said she still struggles with the trauma.
“I had big dreams, hopes of us going to the nursery and me getting out and raising my son and getting my life together,” she said. “They took that from me.”
Attorneys representing the state and city have denied the allegations in court filings and have sought dismissal of the two lawsuits. The city and state corrections departments separately said they have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse.
Dozens more people have sued medical providers over abusive doctors in the past year.
Attorney Mallory Allen is representing more than 100 men who say they were sexually assaulted by Dr. Darius Paduch, a New York-area urologist who specialized in male reproductive health. Paduch also faces criminal charges accusing him of abusing patients.
One former patient, James O’Connell, said he sued a hospital system over alleged abuse by Paduch after glimpsing a law firm’s early morning TV ad seeking potential plaintiffs. He hopes his action helps bring change.
“I have nephews. I have a son. If I can do something to make sure that there’s a far lesser chance of anything like this ever happening to them, then I’ll do whatever I need,” O’Connell said.