Senior Partner Aurore DeCarlo on the first Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act trial

C.A. Goldberg, PLLC Senior Partner Aurore DeCarlo shares her thoughts on the first Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act trial.

A clear message to survivors of “untouchable” abusers: you CAN get justice

After five years of litigation, Haleigh Breest and her legal team won an epic battle against mogul movie director Paul Haggis when a jury found Mr. Haggis liable for rape and sexual abuse, awarding Ms. Breest $7.5 million in compensatory damages and recommending punitive damages (which will be determined next week). 

Ms. Breest’s win sends an enormously valuable message to sexual assault survivors who seek accountability against rich, powerful, and seemingly untouchable abusers: you CAN get justice.

There are powerful tools available for holding ‘untouchable’ offenders accountable.

Although Mr. Haggis’s legal team went to great lengths to attack and victim-blame Ms. Breest, ultimately the jury believed her and rewarded her for having the courage to speak out Ms. Breest’s win also highlights the importance of the New York City’s Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act (GMVPA), the law under which Ms. Breest sought damages against Mr. Haggis.

The GMVPA, passed in 2000, is an underused local law that can provide victims of sexual assault recourse to seek civil remedies against their offenders if they can demonstrate that violent acts were motivated by gender. In a historic ruling issued on the Breest v. Haggis case in December 2019, a New York appeals court ruled that rape and sexual assault are in and of themselves motivated at least in part by animus towards the victim’s gender, and therefore prohibited by the GMVA. 

In crucial language the court held that “[r]ape and sexual assault are, by definition, actions taken against the victim without the victim’s consent. Without consent, sexual acts such as those alleged in the complaint are a violation of the victim’s bodily autonomy and an expression of the perpetrator’s contempt for that autonomy. Coerced sexual activity is dehumanizing and fear-inducing. Malice or ill will based on gender is apparent from the alleged commission of the act itself. Animus inheres where consent is absent.”

Coerced sexual activity is dehumanizing and fear-inducing. Malice or ill will based on gender is apparent from the alleged commission of the act itself.

Survivors should explore possible claims under the GMVPA if their sexual assault or other gender-motivated violence, including sexual harassment, occurred in New York City (inclusive of all five boroughs). As of now the statute of limitations on GMVPA claims is seven years but on March 1, 2023 a two-year lookback window will go into effect which will give life to GMVPA claims no matter how long ago the sexual violence occurred. Additionally, the New York Adult Survivors Act, which goes into effect on November 24, 2022, will provide a one-year lookback window to those seeking claims for sexual violence inflicted in the state of New York, again no matter when that violence occurred.

As demonstrated by the result in the Haggis case, these laws can serve as powerful tools in holding offenders accountable, no matter their status, connections, or wealth.

It takes fortitude to confront an abuser. And it can be a perilous undertaking. Abusers who have the resources at hand may try to quiet and stifle victims and fault them for their own assaults.  We saw this in the avalanche of vitriol, trolling, and threats targeted at Amber Heard during her trial against Johnny Depp. What Heard experienced online, which we were all witness to – and its influence on the court of public opinion, and most likely on the trial itself – was disheartening and worrisome. It is important that these high-visibility trials are conducted in a way that respects the victims who have sacrificed so much to speak out about their experiences. Both for those victims themselves and for the potential chilling-effect on other victims who may be put-off from speaking out.  This 7.5million verdict in favor of Ms. Breest is a much-needed reminder that justice and dignity can and will be served.

Ms. Breest should be highly commended for her incredible courage and strength. Hopefully her journey and perseverance will encourage other survivors to take the same steps in bringing their abusers to justice.

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