LOS ANGELES » For weeks, women have publicly shared stories of alleged sexual abuse by Bill Cosby with the expectation that any lawsuits they might file would be blocked due to long-expired statutes of limitations.
On Tuesday, however, a woman who claims Cosby molested her in a bedroom of the Playboy Mansion around 1974 filed a sexual battery lawsuit, using an exemption that allows victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue decades after the incident.
Judy Huth contends she was 15 years old when Cosby abused her and filed the lawsuit in Los Angeles because she only recently became aware of psychological damage caused by the incident. Experts say Huth’s lawsuit is the latest high-profile example of an alleged abuse victim getting their day in court.
"The reality is, with sexual violence and a lot of traumatic events, is that you don’t discover either the full extent or even any of the trauma immediately," said Meg Garvin, a law professor and executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute.
She said statute of limitations laws that limited victims, especially those of childhood sex abuse, from filing claims later in life reflect an outdated public policy.
"It was neglecting the reality of victimization," she said. "The original public policy is no longer valid because we know better now."
It can take decades for a victim of child sex abuse to realize the impact it’s had on their life, said Raymond Boucher, a civil litigator who was the lead attorney in molestation lawsuits against the Catholic Church of California. Boucher’s work led to the settlement of many of the cases for $660 million in 2007.
"When you’re talking about rape or sexual abuse, so often the victims suppress the feelings, the emotion, and the incident itself," Boucher said.
For Huth’s lawsuit to survive, she will have to show that she discovered the alleged abuse by Cosby caused significant psychological damage within the past three years.
"This traumatic incident, at such a tender age, has caused psychological damage and mental anguish for (Huth) that has caused significant problems throughout her life," her lawsuit states.
Boucher said as the case progresses, a psychological analysis of Huth will play a role in whether her case goes forward.
He said while the concept of suing another person for abuse that happened 40 years ago may seem odd, the principle has been a part of the legal system for decades. He cited successful cases filed by people who became aware late in life that harmful chemicals or exposure to asbestos caused health problems or early deaths as legally similar to the sex abuse claims.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen women have accused Cosby of drugging and sexually abusing them. Cosby’s attorneys previously have issued statements characterizing some of the claims as previously discredited and others as untrue. Cosby’s attorney Martin Singer did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment on Wednesday.
Tweets sent from Cosby’s official Twitter account on Monday and Tuesday thanked a pair of celebrity supporters, Whoopi Goldberg and singer Jill Scott.
Cosby, 77, has steadfastly refused to answer questions about the sex abuse allegations. Singer has denied some of the accusations and said several of the women accusing Cosby have been discredited, but none of the claims have been tested in court. Only one woman has filed suit — Andrea Constand, who sued in 2005 and settled for an undisclosed amount before the case went to trial. Cosby has never been charged in connection with any of the allegations.
Since the most recent allegations arose, NBC has scrapped a Cosby comedy that was under development, TV Land stopped airing reruns of "The Cosby Show," and Netflix postponed a Cosby standup special. Numerous dates on Cosby’s tour have been canceled, including two Saturday performances in Tarrytown, New York that were cancelled Wednesday after the promoter had earlier offered ticketholders refunds and nearly half bowed out of attending.
One North Carolina school removed the entertainer from an advisory board; another stopped awarding an online scholarship in Cosby’s name. Cosby also resigned from Temple University’s board of trustees on Monday, saying he "wanted to do what would be in the best interests of the university and its students."
It may take years to sort out Huth’s lawsuit, but for many of the women who have accused Cosby, there is no recourse in civil or criminal courts.
Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred conceded that point to a room full of reporters on Wednesday, accompanied by three women including Beth Ferrier, who was to have testified in the Constand case that she too was sexually assaulted by Cosby, had the case gone to trial. The two other women also claimed Cosby had abused them sexually, but Allred would not say how she’d vetted the two women’s claims when asked by a reporter.
Derrik J. Lang in Los Angeles and David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.