Originally created 02/22/99

Businesses face suits by victims



YORK, S.C. -- Rape victims who once hid in shame are fighting back by suing not only their attackers, but the owners of property where the rapes occurred.

Victims' advocates call it a heartening development. But business leaders say the lawsuits wrongly try to hold businesses responsible for the misdeeds of criminals.

At least 500 rape victims sue their assailants each year, and most include the owners of the property where the assaults happened, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime in Arlington, Va.

Such lawsuits also are surfacing in the Carolinas. Perhaps the most high-profile example is the civil suit pending against Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn involving a woman's allegations of a sexual assault at his Tega Cay, S.C., mansion in 1997.

In another case, a York County jury last month added $880,000 in civil penalties to the three years a child molester had already spent in jail for assaulting a 2-year-old girl at a home day care.

The child's family also sued the Social Services Department, alleging the agency had not properly investigated an earlier abuse report. The family settled last year for an undisclosed amount.

Earlier this month, an 18-year-old former Pizza Hut cook who claimed her boss in 1997 raped her twice within seven days sued the supervisor and the restaurant chain. Mecklenburg, N.C., prosecutors dismissed criminal charges against the man last year.

The woman sued Pizza Hut, claiming sexual discrimination, civil rights violations and negligence. She accused the man of civil rights violations and assault.

The woman refused to comment in The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer story.

In the suit, the woman says she was fired shortly after the rapes in July 1997.

The man, who could not be reached for comment, no longer works at the west Charlotte restaurant. Pizza Hut spokesman Jay Allison refused to discuss the lawsuit.

"More people are becoming aware that the civil route is an option," said Annette Morrison, director of United Family Services' victim assistance program. "Places of business do have an obligation to maintain as much safety as is practical."

Others say civil rape lawsuits against businesses often overreach.

"It can be very troubling," said Larry Kraus, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. "To what extent does a business owner have to go to meet his responsibility under the law? Do you have to have armed guards at every McDonald's or Pizza Hut?"

Civil suits have been filed against the owners of parking lots, apartments, hotels and even nursing homes where sexual assaults occurred.

Jury Verdict Research, a Pennsylvania-based legal consulting firm, studied 56 civil rape lawsuits from 1992 to this year and found that the plaintiffs won 37 of them. The median jury award was $600,000.

"People, businesses and others begin to realize there is a liability for not taking these things seriously," said Susan Higginbotham, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

But others say that the push is motivated by selfishness.

"It's greed, pure and simple," Mr. Kraus said. "You can't get any money out of most criminals so you find someone you can get money out of."