Prosecutors to move forward with criminal case

Updated: August 25, 2004, 9:50 AM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- The woman accusing Kobe Bryant of rape filed a civil lawsuit against the NBA star in federal court Tuesday, a move legal experts said could cripple the criminal case less than three weeks before the trial begins.

Attorneys for the 20-year-old woman asked for a jury trial and compensatory damages of at least $75,000, with punitive damages to be determined later.

Attorneys John Clune and Lin Wood said their client was owed money for pain, "public scorn, hatred and ridicule" she has suffered as a result of the alleged attack last summer. They also accused Bryant of similar misconduct involving women, but provided no details.

Civil Suit Limits
Kobe Bryant
The woman accusing Kobe Bryant of rape could have a difficult time winning more than $733,000 if she prevails in the civil lawsuit against the NBA star.

Though the case is in federal court, it would be tried under state law, which sets strict caps on civil damages, said Bill Keating, a 33-year attorney in Colorado.

Here is a look at the types of damages that can be awarded, and the caps that apply to each:

  • Noneconomic damages, including physical and emotional pain and suffering, loss of quality of life and emotional stress, cannot exceed $366,500 -- unless a jury decides to grant a higher award and the judge believes the evidence justifies the increase. In such cases, the increase can be no more than double the cap, or $733,000.

  • Economic-loss damages, including loss of earning capacity or wages and cost of future medical care, are not limited.

  • Physical impairment or disfigurement damages are not limited, but typically have to be permanent or severe to result in high amounts.

  • Punitive damages cannot exceed the total of compensatory damages, or the total award for non-economic losses, economic losses and physical impairment or disfigurement. Punitive damages can be awarded only if the plaintiff's lawyers prove beyond a reasonable doubt -- a higher standard than necessary to win compensatory damages -- that the defendant's conduct was willful, wanton and malicious. Punitive damages can be tripled if the judge finds that the harmful conduct continued during litigation.
    -- Associated Press
  • The filing came less than a week after the attorneys said they were considering a civil suit after a series of mistakes they say have undermined their client's chance to have her accusation heard fairly.

    To win a civil lawsuit, a plaintiff must prove only that it is more likely than not harm was caused by the defendant. Prosecutors in a criminal case have to convince jurors beyond a reasonable doubt a defendant committed a crime, a much higher standard of proof.

    Prosecution spokeswoman Krista Flannigan said the lawsuit changes nothing for prosecutors.

    "We are still moving forward," she said, declining comment on whether the civil case would complicate the trial.

    Wood also declined comment, citing District Judge Terry Ruckriegle's sweeping gag order in the case, but said "both cases at present are moving forward." Bryant's attorneys did not return a message.

    Bryant 25, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault. He has said he had consensual sex with the woman, then 19, at the Vail-area resort where she worked last summer. The Los Angeles Lakers star faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine of up to $750,000 if convicted. Jury selection begins Aug. 27.

    Legal experts said the civil lawsuit would not only hurt prosecutors, but could mean the accuser intends to end her participation in the criminal case.

    "The timing is strange -- before the trial rather than after -- and I still think there could be a global settlement and perhaps the filing is one step in the global settlement," said Larry Pozner, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

    Bryant's attorneys have already argued the woman falsely accused Bryant to gain the attention of a former boyfriend, and that she was given nearly $20,000 from a victims' compensation fund. Experts say the civil case is more fodder for the argument that the woman has a financial motive to pursue the case.

    "Now all of a sudden it looks like this whole thing was for money. If it's otherwise, then why would she file a civil case?" said Dan Recht, former president of the Colorado Criminal Bar Association. "In my mind, they would never file a civil case without having a strategy of getting the criminal case dismissed."

    He also said the lawsuit could hurt the chances of winning a conviction.

    "A jury in a criminal case will know this is not the end of the road," Recht said.

    The woman, however, might be angry enough to want to go ahead in both courts, said Norm Early a former Denver prosecutor.

    The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Denver because the alleged crime happened in Colorado and the two parties live in different states. Like the criminal case, it accuses Bryant of attacking the woman in his room at the Cordillera resort, causing her emotional and physical problems that linger to this day.

    "The conduct of defendant Bryant demonstrates willful, reckless and intentional criminal conduct and that entire want of care that raises a conscious indifference to consequences," the attorneys wrote.

    The attorneys accused Bryant of flirting with the woman, a front desk employee, during a tour of the resort. After the two ended up in his room, they began to kiss. Investigators have said the encounter turned violent after flirting by both Bryant and his accuser, and that she told Bryant "no" at least twice.

    In the lawsuit, the attorneys said at some point during the kissing "Bryant's voice became deeper and his acts became rougher" as he began to grope the woman. She asked him to stop, but Bryant allegedly blocked her exit, grabbed her and forced her over a chair to rape her.

    Bryant's hands were around the woman's neck, the attorneys said -- "a perceived threat of potential strangulation if she resisted his advances." They also accused Bryant of "attempting to commit similar acts of violent sexual assault on females he has just met," but they did not elaborate.

    The woman's attorneys last week went on national TV to complain about mistakes made by court staff. The accuser's name has been included in filings mistakenly posted on a state court Web site and a court reporter accidentally e-mailed transcripts of a closed-door hearing on the woman's sexual activities to seven news organizations, which published the details after winning a First Amendment court fight with the judge.

    "This case unfortunately has been the poster child for the very worst that we can treat a woman and a victim of sexual assault," said Cynthia Stone, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "She has been the one who has been put on trial in the court of public opinion."

    Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press