Bill Cosby successfully dodged questions about the sexual assault allegations made against him while appearing on Good Morning America on Friday, and he may also successfully dodge any legal ramifications for his alleged actions.
Although over 40 women have come forward accusing the comedian, 77, of assault, no criminal charges have been filed – and no civil lawsuits based on the allegations are currently pending due to the statute of limitations in the various jurisdictions in which they have been made. Cosby does face a defamation lawsuit from one group of alleged victims, however.
“Civil suits are hard because these are things that can be time-barred,” explains Professor Robin Wilson of the University of Illinois College of Law. “You have so many years to file a civil suit, and if you miss that time limit, there really is no point, and there’s going to be no opportunity for a lawsuit.”
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In many jurisdictions – including the state of California, where several claims have been made – alleged victims of sexual assault only have two years to file a lawsuit.
“The normal statute of limitations says you have to prosecute,” says Wilson. “You can’t just sit on your rights, sit on your injuries – you have to do something about it.”
Wilson believes many of the women who have come forward now were likely afraid to do so before for a variety of factors.
“They say people didn’t believe them, and when you think you’re the only one, you’re not very likely to try to bring a lawsuit or to engage the transaction costs or take on a titan,” she says. “When there are 40 of you, you might have, but unfortunately that iceberg kind of emerged from the water a little too late for these women in terms of the statute of limitations.”
The one lawsuit filed against Cosby that is currently active is a defamation suit filed by former attorney Tamara Green, along with Therese Serignese and Linda Traitz. The women claim that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them in the 1970s and that Cosby’s representatives called them liars when confronted about the accusations last year.
“When somebody trashes your reputation, you’re recovering for the loss to your reputation,” explains Wilson. “If you’re someone who has a pristine reputation, you’ve been harmed by being called a liar.”
She does not believe the women are using the defamation suit as a way to get around the statute of limitations for the alleged assault accusations.
“A lot of people will see them as one big ball of wax but they’re distinct,” says Wilson. “You have different facts that you prove, and the measure of damages is very, very different.”
Cosby has since filed a motion to dismiss the defamation case saying he was simply acting in self-defense by denying their claims.
“He has the right to defend, he has the right to self-defense, but I don’t think he’s going to get out on a motion to dismiss,” says Wilson. “I think it’s going to be a material question that would have to be litigated. Usually when you have a motion to dismiss, you say the other person has no grounds on whichever to recover, but if there’s a statement by him and she says that it injured her, it’s hard to see how you can get out on a motion to dismiss and cut off the jury entirely.”