Sexual assault survivor advocates are pushing for an extension or a more permanent way to seek legal accountability for abusers after more than 2,500 lawsuits were filed under the New York Adult Survivors Act before its one-year window to sue closed Thursday.
The law, which Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul signed in May 2022, created the one-year window for people who were 18 years or older at the time of an alleged offense to file a lawsuit against their alleged abusers and the institutions that enabled them, regardless of statutes of limitations.
In the days leading up to the lookback window closing, a surge of lawsuits was filed against high-profile people across industries, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams, accusing him of a 1993 sexual assault.
“It’s absolutely not true,” Adams said in response to the allegation. “I don’t even recall ever meeting the person who made this allegation.”
Now, survivor advocates are pushing for an extension of the window or a more permanent legal change free from statutes of limitations they argue are restrictive and don’t account for the experience of survivors.
“What we have learned is that trauma takes time – that when you’ve experienced a sexual assault, especially by somebody who was in a position of power, you may not be able to take action right away, that you need time to process what’s happened to you, and you need time to get support around you if you are going to pursue some kind of legal action,” said Liz Roberts, CEO of Safe Horizon, a New York-based group that provides support for victims of all forms of violence.
A large swath of the cases filed under the act were on behalf of incarcerated people against various corrections departments within the state, according to data from the New York State Unified Court System. Many were filed by patients against hospitals, large medical systems and companies that they say employed their abusers and ignored the warnings. Some were filed directly against accused abusers.
One of the law’s most high-profile tests came when journalist E. Jean Carroll sued former President Donald Trump for sexually abusing her in a luxury department store dressing room in the spring of 1996. A Manhattan federal jury found in May that Trump did sexually abuse Carroll and awarded her $5 million for battery and defamation.
Lawsuits also were filed on behalf of survivors who say they were sexually assaulted by former Columbia University gynecologist Dr. Robert Hadden, who was convicted of federal sexual abuse charges in January, CNN has reported. Columbia University will notify nearly 6,500 former patients of Hadden’s conviction and sentence, and provide information about its survivors’ settlement fund, it said in a statement November 13.
The act overall has not only empowered survivors to come forward but also pushed institutions to take more responsibility when it comes to abuse that happens under their watch, Roberts said.
“I think (the act) will change behavior going forward, that it will change institutional practices,” she said. “I do very much hope other states will follow suit.”
‘It’s deeply impacted my life’
Attorney Nicholas Liakas represents clients who allege they were assaulted by Zhi Alan Cheng, a doctor who worked for New York-Presbyterian Queens hospital and is charged with drugging, raping and filming the sexual assaults of women, including patients.
“Dr. Cheng has pleaded not guilty to the charges and we intend to fight them,” Cheng’s attorney Jeffrey Lichtman previously told CNN in a written statement.
One of Liakas’ clients alleged she was sexually assaulted by Cheng while recovering from anesthesia when she was seen for what should have been a routine colonoscopy in 2021. She asked to be referred to as Jane Doe to protect her privacy.
“It wasn’t necessarily about filing the lawsuit. It was more about holding this doctor accountable for what he did to me,” Doe told CNN.
It was only after seeing news reports of other survivors who had spoken out about experiences with Cheng that allegedly took place before hers that she decided to take legal action against the hospital system, she said.
“Had he been fired or put on suspension, I wouldn’t have been Jane Doe number-whatever,” she said. “They’re not really doing their part, protecting their patients.”
New York-Presbyterian said Cheng was immediately placed off duty, banned from hospital property and terminated in December 2022, when the district attorney brought forward the allegations of sexual abuse.
New York-Presbyterian previously declined to comment about whether it was aware of reports of abuse by Cheng before December 2022.
“The crimes committed by this individual are heinous, despicable, and a fundamental betrayal of our mission and our patients’ trust. We are appalled and deeply saddened by what these victims and their families have endured,” the hospital system told CNN in a statement.
New York-Presbyterian has implemented mandatory training on its escalation and chaperone policies, the statement added.
For Doe, taking action – even years after the fact – has helped her quell nagging thoughts that she was responsible for what happened to her and place the responsibility squarely on her accused abuser and the institution that employed him, she said.
“If the Adult Survivors Act hadn’t been enacted, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to bring my case forward,” Doe said. “It’s deeply impacted my life.”
Liakas has spoken to people w ho were recently confronted with video evidence of their sexual assaults but were not emotionally ready to initiate a lawsuit by the Thanksgiving deadline, he said.
“I tell them, ‘Three years from now, or a year from now, when you’ve gone through the trauma as best you can and maybe gotten to a better space where you want to deal with this, you’re going to call me, and I’m going to tell you, I’m sorry. I can’t do anything for you,’” said Liakas, of Liakas Law, P.C. “It’s heartbreaking to say that.”
New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the act, plans to speak to lawmakers about possible solutions, CNN affiliate WRBG reported.
“The idea that we would extend this whether in a multiyear fashion or permanently is something I’ll certainly be speaking with my Senate colleagues and leadership about,” Hoylman-Sigal said.
Meanwhile, Safe Horizon and other survivor advocates are closely watching proposed legislation and other efforts to eliminate statutes of limitation related to sexual abuse.
“There are a lot of people that suffer in silence,” Doe said. “I just hope they extend (the law), so they can help other survivors hold their abusers accountable and gain some type of closure.”
If you or someone you know is dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, there are organizations that can help. National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673. Provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Available 24/7. Also available through online chat tool.
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