May 25, 2018
There is no amount of money to compensate for the horrors of violent sexual assault; this is undeniable. But in a civil action to recover damages, money is literally all there is to be had. This week, a jury significantly raised the bar on the value of a rape victim’s potential damages by awarding a record $1 billion to Hope Cheston as the result of a civil action filed in Clayton County, Georgia several years ago.
In 2012, an armed security guard from a neighboring apartment complex raped Hope Cheston on a picnic table. The victim was only fourteen-years-old. A criminal investigation resulted in a twenty-year prison term for the guard, Brandon Lamar Zachary, who began serving his sentence for statutory rape in 2016. Zachary was twenty-two years old at the time of the assault.
Employer Negligence Opens Door to Civil Lawsuit
Although the perpetrator is behind bars (where he belongs), the investigation revealed a profoundly disturbing fact. Because he lacked the licensing required by law to hold such a job, the security company, Crime Prevention Agency, Inc., never should have hired Brandon Zachary at all. The negligence on behalf of the security company led the victim’s mother, Renetta Cheston-Thornton, to file a civil lawsuit in 2015.
Although the court had already determined negligence, the amount of the damages to be awarded was solely in the hands of the twelve members of the jury. Deliberations lasted only two hours before the jury returned the record-setting award and members of the jury immediately swarmed Hope and her mother with hugs and tears. They didn’t even wait for permission from the judge to leave the jury box.
Crime Prevention Agency, Inc. will almost certainly appeal the award, and legal experts predict the final dollar amount will likely be lowered. An appeals court will focus on whether or not the award was appropriate and proportional in relation to other similarly situated cases.
What Does this $1 Billion Award Mean for Other Victims?
Although the legal force and effect of the $1 billion judgment may be limited, the jury’s message has reverberated through the legal community. In situations where there is no reasonable methodology for assigning a dollar value to the horrors of sexual assault, the bar has now been raised to a whole new level. Whether or not this shift will force corporations to adhere to a reasonable standard of conduct when hiring employees remains to be seen, but the headline-generating award in the Hope Cheston case will certainly not be forgotten anytime soon by risk managers.
In many civil cases stemming from sexual assault, there is a very limited ability to recover damages because the defendant lacks the resources to pay anything to the victim. If the perpetrator does wind up in prison, as most victims would undoubtedly prefer, their ability to pay money damages in a civil lawsuit is even more restricted. As a result, victims in this situation often do not bother with a civil suit because the costs of the litigation would outweigh any potential award. Additionally, the emotional toll of reliving the experience throughout the lengthy litigation process must be taken into consideration.
Contact a Lawyer
Despite the generalizations drawn by the media about civil lawsuits to compensate for sexual assault, victims need to know that every single case is unique. You should not attempt to predict what would or wouldn’t happen in a civil suit based on what happened in another case. The variables are too important to overlook and must be reviewed by an expert in civil litigation representing victims of sexual assault.
If any of your loved ones are facing a difficult time in determining whether or not to pursue a civil lawsuit for damages stemming from sexual abuse, seek legal help without delay. Firms such as The Cifarelli Law Firm, LLP have a team of professionals who can help you throughout the journey and can fight to protect you and your loved ones.