In the continuing coverage of the Bill Cosby saga the general public has gotten to know more about the “statute of limitations” than most people probably ever imagined they would.
The statute of limitations is nothing more than a legal deadline for filing a lawsuit or prosecuting a crime. A party to a civil suit has to file a complaint within a certain number of years following the event giving rise to the lawsuit. Similarly, a prosecutor needs to indict a defendant within some number of years of the crime. The statute of limitations has become a part of the Cosby discussion because many of the women who have come forward detailing alleged sexual assaults by Cosby suffered their fate too many years ago to bring a civil or criminal complaint against Cosby. The statute of limitations would bar any such action.
But one alleged victim has come up with a new strategy that allows her to bring a suit against Cosby – this time for libel. Kristina Ruehli recently filed a suit in a Massachusetts federal court claiming that Cosby libeled her in 2014 when Cosby’s lawyer branded her a liar for publicly describing her experience with Cosby. That experience occurred in 1965.
Ruehli’s complaint claims that in 1965, Coby invited her to a party at his home. When Ms. Ruehli arrived, no one else was there. Cosby provided Ruehli with two drinks, after which she passed out. According to her complaint, when she came to, she was in a bed, with Cosby attempting to force her to perform oral sex. Ms. Ruehli then vomited several times. She believes the vomiting occurred because Cosby slipped a drug into her drink.
Approximately fifty years later, in 2005, Ms. Ruehli learned about a lawsuit that a woman named Andrea Constand filed against Cosby. Ms. Constand made allegations strikingly similar to Ms. Ruehli’s. In an effort to support Ms. Constand, Ms. Ruehli came forward and gave an interview to Philadelphia Magazine in which she provided a detailed account of her 1965 encounter. In response, Martin Singer, Cosby’s lawyer, issued the following statement:
“The new never-before-heard claims from women who have come forward in the past two weeks with unsubstantiated, fantastical stories about things they say occurred 30, 40, or even 50 years ago have escalated far past the point of absurdity. These brand new claims about alleged decades-old events are becoming increasingly ridiculous, and it is completely illogical that so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years. . . . It is long past time for this media vilification of Mr. Cosby to stop.”
That statement is the basis for Ms. Ruehli’s libel suit. In her view, by referring to events “50 years ago” the statement identified her as one of the women at issue. And the rest of the statement, according to Ms. Ruehli’s complaint, “stated explicitly, stated in effect, stated by innuendo, and/or implied that Ms. Ruehli was a liar, that her story had not been and could not be corroborated . . . and that she and her story were fantastical, ridiculous, and absurd.”
There are some interesting wrinkles to the lawsuit. First, the only defendant is William H. Cosby, Jr., and he didn’t make the statement. Ms. Ruehli decided not to name Martin Singer as a defendant. While on the surface, this may look like a problem, Ms. Ruehli contends Cosby is vicariously liable for the comments of his lawyer. After all, we’re not called “mouthpieces” for nothing. We’ll see if the court agrees. I suspect Cosby will use this fact in his defense.
The other wrinkle is that had Singer made the exact same statement in court, they would likely be “privileged.” Courts recognize that litigants need to be free to argue their side in court, even if that means making harsh accusations against opposing parties or witnesses. The subjects of in court statements typically cannot bring defamation claims based on those comments. But in this case, Singer made the comments outside of court, in a press release. Comments made in that format are not privileged.
Finally, it’s likely Cosby will argue Singer’s comments were opinion, and as such can’t form the basis for a libel claim. That’s true to a point, but it would be a better argument if Ms. Ruehli brought her claim against someone unconnected to Cosby’s defense. That is, if a dedicated Cosby fan made the same comments as Singer – calling into question the truth of her claims given the long passage of time, a court might very well consider those comments opinion. But Cosby, and presumably his lawyer, have first- hand knowledge of the events. So when they say those comments are “fantastical” they bring an authority that suggests those comments are facts.
In many cases, Cosby had been able to avoid a public airing of the terrible charges against him, simply by the passing of time. But assuming Ms. Ruehli’s suit survives a motion to dismiss, all of Cosby’s sordid past is likely to be up for examination. Bad news for him, but good news, I suppose, for the truth.