Sexual assault victim sues defense attorney

How far can lawyers go in questioning a victim's character?


Cecelie S. Berry
March 23, 2006 2:19AM (UTC)

A pending civil action in California may establish a new legal precedent, holding defense attorneys and their investigators civilly liable for the emotional damage they inflict on sexual assault victims while preparing their client's defense.

Jane Doe was 16 years old when she was sexually assaulted by Greg Haidl, Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann, all 17, as she lay unconscious on a pool table. Haidl videotaped the incident, during which Jane Doe was violated with a variety of objects, including a pool cue, a lighted cigarette and a Snapple bottle. During the criminal action, Joseph Cavallo and other lawyers for the defense cast the victim as an aspiring porn star who had submitted to the boys' actions voluntarily. Doe was also vigorously cross-examined regarding her sexual past. The defense's efforts to smear her reputation and credibility failed. The three young men were convicted of sexual assault, and are currently serving time.

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Now 20, Jane Doe has brought a civil action against the three, and named Haidl's father, a wealthy former assistant sheriff in Orange County, as a codefendant. Doe alleges that Haidl's father should have been aware of the parties, which featured drugs and alcohol, that were held in his Corona del Mar home, where the assault occurred. In an unprecedented legal move, the $26 million case also names Haidl's defense attorney, Cavallo, and his two investigators, John Warren and Shawn Smigel, for their actions in causing the plaintiff extreme emotional distress.

Doe alleges that Cavallo and his investigators crossed the bounds of appropriate representation of her attackers when they "staked out her Rancho Cucamonga house, went through her trash, stalked her, improperly obtained her medical records, broadcast her identity and once cornered her in a parking lot while snapping pictures." Doe recalls that after the defendants were arrested, fliers appeared in the parking lot of her high school naming Jane Doe as the accuser. When she sought refuge in another school, she says, investigators appeared in the parking lot of the new school and screamed her name.

Cavallo said in response, "Everyone knew who Jane Doe was anyway."

Because of the existence of the videotape, Jane Doe has a strong civil case against her attackers. The outcome of the case against Cavallo is less certain. It challenges the established "litigation privilege" that prevents the actions of a defense attorney in a court case from becoming the subject of a lawsuit. Doe is seeking to overturn legal precedent; her claim against Cavallo will test the boundaries of what actions an attorney may authorize in the defense of clients. If she succeeds, she will have stripped away key weapons in the arsenal of cruel tactics that have intimidated many sexual victims into silence.


Cecelie S. Berry

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