On top of the years in prison comedian Bill Cosby faces for sexual assault, his criminal conviction increases the likelihood he will have to pay hefty damages in civil lawsuits brought by women who say he assaulted or defamed them, legal experts said.
“The idea that ‘I never did any of these things’ – well there’s been a very public finding by a jury of twelve good citizens,” said David Harris, a criminal justice professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Cosby, 80, famous for his role as the lovable father in the 1980s TV hit “The Cosby Show,” was found guilty on Thursday by a jury in Norristown, Pennsylvania, of drugging and sexually assaulting onetime friend Andrea Constand in 2004. Cosby faces up to 10 years in prison for each of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Constand is one of about 60 women who have accused Cosby of assaulting them, often using drugs to incapacitate them. The accusations go back decades but only Constand’s resulted in criminal charges. The other allegations were too old to prosecute.
Cosby, once known as “America’s Dad,” has denied all the accusations.
At least 10 women have pending civil claims against Cosby in lawsuits filed in California and Massachusetts, carrying potentially hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in damages for him. Two women have brought sexual assault claims against Cosby. Others, barred from doing so because too much time has passed, have filed defamation lawsuits, saying he smeared their reputations by publicly denying their accusations.
Lawyers representing Cosby in the civil cases could not be reached for comment. Lawyer Gloria Allred, who represents one sexual assault accuser, said she will seek to introduce Cosby’s conviction if the lawsuit goes to trial.
“I definitely think it will have an impact on the jury to know that Mr. Cosby has been convicted in a criminal court,” Allred said.
Women who brought civil cases against Cosby will only need to show the weight of evidence is on their side, a lower standard than in the criminal case in which prosecutors must prove claims beyond a reasonable doubt. Lynne Abraham, a former Philadelphia District Attorney and now partner at the law firm Archer, said Cosby’s conviction could prompt new accusers to sue him.
“It might give them courage to come forward,” she said.
While judges do not always allow evidence of previous bad actions in court, they may do so if it shows a pattern of behavior, said Douglas Wigdor, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases.
In Cosby’s criminal trial, five accusers other than Constand who were allowed to testify each said they, too, had been drugged and violated.
“I think in this particular case it would be more likely than not that a judge would admit the evidence, because he did have a peculiar way of going about his sexual assault,” Wigdor said.
Paul Callan, who represented the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in a civil case against her ex-husband, former football star O.J. Simpson, after he was found not guilty of her murder, said the criminal conviction would be “an enormous assist” in civil cases.
The defamation claims would be more difficult to prove than the sexual assault claims against Cosby, but the damage to Cosby’s reputation after the verdict “may give new life” to them, Callan said. If Cosby is imprisoned, it will make defending himself even more difficult.
“Cosby’s lawyers would be wise to settle the cases early and quickly if funds are available,” Callan said.
Plaintiffs would likely need to establish that Cosby said something about them beyond merely denying allegations of sexual assault, Callan said.
So far, women who have brought defamation claims against Cosby have had mixed success. A California court has allowed one defamation lawsuit against Cosby, filed by former model Janice Dickinson, to proceed, while a federal appeals court has dismissed a similar case brought by actress Kathrine McKee. Defamation claims by seven other women are pending in a Massachusetts federal court. Joseph Cammarata, a lawyer for the women in the Massachusetts defamation case, said he planned to use the conviction as evidence.