The studio apartment in the pleasant brick complex on 14th Street NW seemed like the perfect place for the young woman from the Midwest just starting her life in Washington. It was compact and affordable, only $250 a month. It was across the street from her best friend's place, and best of all, the men in uniform coming and going at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center made the neighborhood seem safe. Or so the young woman thought.
Then shortly before dawn on May 10, 1983, the woman was awakened by a man's hand over her face and a voice that said in the darkness: "Be quiet. Where's the money?" Threatening to kill her if she looked at his face, the man robbed and raped her and then fled.
Five years earlier, another woman in the studio apartment had been awakened by a male voice and a knife at her throat. She too was raped, the young woman later learned. Both women believed their assailants broke in through the same kitchen window, and both suspected that the lock was defective.
Angered by belief that her rape "never had to happen," the young woman said, she filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, charging the landlord with negligence for failing to fix the lock. Lawyers for Aldon Management, which managed the building, asserted that the windows were inspected and working properly when the woman moved in, according to court records, and the company denied any negligence.
The case never came to trial, but the young woman got a $100,000 out-of-court settlement in May, according to her attorney. With that, she joined the growing ranks of women nationally who are fighting rape by filing lawsuits -- not against the perpetrators, but against those who they maintain contributed to the crime through negligence.
They have sued apartment buildings, hotels and businesses for failing to provide adequate security. They have sued employers who hired applicants with criminal records for jobs that require contact with the public. Their targets have run the gamut from the Chicago Transit Authority to Avis Rent a Car and from Howard Johnson's Motels Inc. to the District of Columbia government.
"While the criminal justice system works to deter the assailants, the civil system tries to deter the dangerous conditions that foster crime, whether in the workplace, the apartment, a bar, a restaurant or a hotel," said attorney Ellen Carson, who has represented several victims, including the midwestern woman. "When landlords have to balance a million-dollar judgment against a few dollars for locks, maybe they'll think harder about security."
The highly publicized case that galvanized the rape victims' legal movement was won by singer Connie Francis in 1976. She sued Howard Johnson's Motels Inc. after she was terrorized at gunpoint for 2 1/2 hours and raped by a man who broke into her suite at a motor lodge in Westbury, N.J. She successfully argued that the motel rooms had inadequate door locks, which could be opened "with a little jiggling." She was awarded $2.5 million by a jury, and settled for about $1.5 million rather than see the case appealed.
Lawsuits such as Francis' are not garden-variety negligence cases, in which someone slips on a sidewalk and sues the homeowner because he failed to clear the ice. No one claims that the "third-party" defendants in these civil suits caused the crime or intended to harm. But according to the ever-increasing rulings around the country, they could have or should have anticipated what might happen, and their failure to take preventive steps was as much legal negligence as the homeowner's failure to clear the ice.
In the decade since the Francis case, courts across the country have been holding defendants to higher standards for providing security and making hiring decisions.
* In 1980, an Indiana jury awarded $800,000 to an Avis car rental agent who sued the company after being raped by a fellow employe in Indianapolis. A second agent received a $300,000 out-of-court settlement after being raped by the same man. According to Buddy Yosha, the victims' lawyer, the man had been convicted of assault and battery and charged with raping a colleague at his previous job before he was hired.
Once on the job, other employes complained that the man was violent, and he was moved to the night shift, where one of his duties was driving female agents to their cars on a service parking lot, Yosha said. Avis, in court papers, denied allegations of negligence.
* In 1983, an Illinois jury awarded $200,000 to a woman who was raped on a Chicago Transit Authority rapid transit train when an assailant dragged her into an unused motorman's compartment. Attorney Kevin Conway said a study had recommended that the unused compartments be closed because "criminals could conceal themselves from those they were about to prey on."
The transit authority appealed, denying negligence and arguing that it could not have foreseen that a passenger would be raped aboard a moving train, according to attorney Edward J. Egan. The judgment was upheld.
* Last January, a Texas jury awarded nearly $5 million to a Mexican woman and her two young daughters. The woman was raped while her 3-year-old child was held at gunpoint by the driver of a Fort Worth cab she had taken. According to attorney Broadus Spivey, the driver had been convicted for armed robbery and charged with assault with intent to commit rape before he was hired, but the Fort Worth Cab & Baggage Co. never checked his record.
Charles T. Levins, attorney for the cab company, denied that the company was negligent. The city issued a permit to the driver after checking his record, and the company relied upon that, Levins said.
* Last May, a D.C. Superior Court jury awarded $250,000 in damages to a teen-ager who had been lured out of an unsupervised classroom at Mary Plummer Elementary School in Southeast Washington and raped when she was 10 years old. Attorney Patrick Christmas argued that "the District, through its absolute carelessness and negligence, took away her childhood" by failing to provide adequate security in a high-crime neighborhood.
Lawyers for the District denied any negligence, and have filed a motion for a new trial. A lawyer for the school system said the incident was "not foreseeable."
According to attorney Carson, more than 350 of these "third-party" lawsuits have been filed nationally since 1970 by crime victims, many of them by victims of rape.
The woman who received the $100,000 settlement here said she was reluctant to sue, thinking that "it was obscene to get money for something like this." Then the landlord sued her for two months' unpaid rent after she broke her lease, decided to move but left her belongings in the apartment. She said she stayed with friends because she could not bear to sleep there again. On a trip back to the building for her mail, she met the previous tenant in the hallway and was told that she too had been raped.
"I wanted to post signs on the door to warn people," she recalled. "All I could think of is they rented to another person. What's going to happen to them?" She said she hoped the suit "would make a difference."
That is a motive many rape victims share, said Ann Burgess, a psychiatric nurse and University of Pennsylvania professor who has treated rape victims. Many victims also share an illness known as "rape trauma syndrome," with symptoms that include phobias, nightmares and flashbacks "that can be triggered by any cue in the environment -- a violent scene in a movie or on the street, or even someone who looks like the rapist," according to Burgess.
Filing a lawsuit also can make the victim -- "rendered helpless and powerless" by the attack -- feel in control again, Burgess said.
But there are mixed reviews as to whether the suits are having an impact on security.
Bob Rosenberg, vice president of Aldon Management, which runs the building at 6707 14th St. NW, said there was no need to beef up security at the complex because "we were very security conscious already." He said there was no way an intruder could have opened the ground-floor kitchen window if it had been locked by the tenant. "In my own mind, I don't believe it the rape happened," he said, adding that he was never informed of the alleged rape of the previous tenant and believes it did not occur either.
He said he believed the second woman made up the story to win "money" in a suit. A male tenant now lives in the apartment.
Police reports were made in both cases, stating that the intruder entered through the kitchen window. A D.C. police detective's report on the 1983 incident, obtained by Carson, also said that the window screen and an ashtray that had been on the sill were found on the ground outside.
Police have lab samples of hair and blood, but no arrests have been made.
"That's typical," said Carson, when told of Rosenberg's remarks. "Despite overwhelming evidence, the prevalent view is often, 'She wasn't raped. She's just saying that.' People want to believe the Cathleen Crowell Webb story is true in every case," Carson said, referring to the Illinois woman who recently recanted her charge of rape against a man who had been convicted and jailed for six years.
Officials of groups representing landlords and innkeepers said security always has been high on the agenda of professionals in those fields. Still, according to one official, "Every time you see a court award, it will heighten everybody's interest for a while."
Charles Fritts of the National Apartment Association said landlords "are going to respond to the law as it is in their jurisdictions. They will do what they have to do."
Some jurisdictions require a great deal more than others. Under a 1970 landmark ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here, the District places a duty on landlords to protect tenants from criminal acts that may be foreseeable, particularly in high crime neighborhoods. In Maryland, the courts have not gone quite as far, although victims have won some substantial judgments there. Virginia is the most conservative jurisdiction in the area when it comes to what a landlord must provide, according to Frank Carrington, a Virginia Beach lawyer at the forefront of the victims' rights movement.
"I wouldn't say it is impossible to win a suit there, but unless the crime was totally foreseeable because the exact same thing happened before, a landlord is not liable for failure to provide security," Carrington said.
Still, attorney Robert Goodson recently won a $150,000 award for a woman who was raped in her Arlington apartment after the landlord failed to provide a deadbolt lock that she had requested. Goodson said such victories "are quite rare" in Virginia, and this one depended on a local law that specifically required deadbolt locks on rental units.
Lawsuits against businesses for negligent hiring are filed less frequently than the landlord cases, but they, too, are having an effect.
Lawyers representing employers on hiring issues say the employers "are in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' " position when deciding how deep to delve into an applicant's background. For instance, employers may ask about previous criminal convictions, but under antidiscrimination laws, they may not ask about prior arrests, according to lawyer Stephen W. Robinson. Currently, there is no affirmative duty to check criminal records. "But employers are being held more and more responsible for things employes do," Robinson added. "I think a change in the law is coming."
Victims' advocate Carrington asserts that all the victim cases have one thing in common. "They all have the same philosophical basis," he said. "To put people on notice, to tell them, 'Let's clean up your act.' "