In November 2014, allegations that Bill Cosby had sexually assaulted women several decades ago were widespread. Barbara Bowman wrote a first-person article in The Washington Post, claiming that Cosby had drugged and raped her in the mid-1980s. These allegations came years after Andrea Constand, another alleged victim, filed a civil suit against Mr. Cosby in 2005. In total, more than two dozen women have come forth claiming that they were sexually abused by Cosby. Bill Cosby’s fallout has been swift; Netflix pulled his comedy special, NBC dropped plans for a new Cosby sitcom, and TV Land pulled their reruns of The Cosby Show. No criminal charges have been brought against Cosby, though various investigations have been reopened.
Cosby’s actions since the allegations became public have lead to a variety of civil lawsuits, including one for defamation. In 2005, Tamara Green told the Today Show that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in the early 1970s. Cosby’s lawyers vehemently denied the allegations and allegedly approached a newspaper with “damaging information” about her. Tamara Green, and two others have since filed suit against Cosby for defamation. In response, Cosby has claimed he has a right to make “privileged utterances of self defense.”
The untimeliness argument is a common theme of the civil suits surrounding Cosby. Many wonder, why aren’t the women suing Cosby for sexual abuse? For example, Green claims that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in the 1970s. Why not sue him for those actions? Such a charge would be too old to survive in court, being beyond the statute of limitations. This would appear to be the case in many, if not all, of the accusers’ circumstances. Thirty-four states have a statute of limitations for sexual assault, ranging from three months to thirty years. Most of the alleged incidents occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and are well beyond the statute of limitations.
Instead of bringing a sexual assault claim, Green has chosen to target statements made by Cosby’s representatives in reaction to articles about her allegations. When speaking to The Washington Post, Walter Phillips Jr., Cosby’s attorney, stated that Cosby had never met Green and that the alleged incident “did not happen.” The article indicated that the statement was made in 2014. Plaintiffs allege that this statement was defamatory. The Washington Post later published a correction, noting that the statement was actually made in 2005. Mr. Cosby therefore argued that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit violated the statute of limitations, being outside the one to three year limit. Plaintiffs claimed that Cosby is still liable because he could reasonably expect that Phillips’ statement would be republished. U.S. District Judge Mark G. Mastroianni ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, allowing them to proceed on their defamation claim.
The dozens of women who were allegedly assaulted by Cosby appear to be unable to bring actions for sexual assault at this time, but that does not mean that they are out of legal options. The response from Cosby and his representatives to the allegations has been quick and pointed. This has given rise to potential defamation claims, an example of only one type of legal action that has been be taken against Cosby. Many other types of litigation are likely to follow as the Bill Cosby issues continue to gain national prominence.