A Santa Monica jury has awarded a female news producer $5.42 million after finding a West Hollywood nightclub was negligent when an employee allegedly sexually assaulted her in one of its restrooms.
The 43-year-old woman sued the Here Lounge and club worker Victor Cruz, alleging she was assaulted and raped by him on March 23, 2009.
After a 15-day trial in Santa Monica Superior Court, jurors found Cruz committed a sexual offense that harmed the woman and that Here Lounge's negligence was a substantial factor in causing that harm.
They found the club was responsible for 40% of the verdict, Cruz 60% and attributed none of the blame to the woman.
"This club turned a blind eye to sexual activity that was allowed to occur in the restroom area," said attorney John Taylor. "Although they had a stated policy of security guards being present in the bathrooms, they weren't present at the time of the attack. The guards abandoned the place where most problems go on."
Taylor said he believes Thursday's verdict was the largest awarded by a jury for sexual assault against a club or bar.
Attorneys for the club and their insurer did not return messages and telephone calls Friday for comment.
Jurors rejected a defense that the sexual acts were consensual, that security guards had circulated through the restroom area and that other factors in the woman's life were responsible for her mental state.
The woman had been drinking with a friend in West Hollywood when the friend decided he was too intoxicated and took a cab home. Alone and intoxicated, the news producer went into the Here Lounge at 696 N. Robertson Blvd. shortly after 12:30 a.m, according to her lawsuit.
Video cameras captured her buying a bottle of water in the lower bar before walking out onto a patio area and sitting on a bench for about 10 minutes, according to court records.
Sometime between 12:54 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. she entered a unisex restroom, according to court papers. As she closed the door to the stall and began to sit on the toilet, the lawsuit alleged Cruz barged in and sexually assaulted her before she ran out of the club.
A good Samaritan found the woman a block away, crying and yelling she been raped and called 911, court records say.
Sheriff's investigators took her to the Santa Monica/UCLA Rape Treatment Center, which documented her injuries and collected DNA samples from her body and clothing. A puddle of blood was found inside the restroom and cleaned up by the club staff, the suit alleged.
Cruz was arrested in December 2009 on suspicion of stealing from club patrons and subsequently was convicted; a swab was taken of his DNA, according to court records. The DNA was placed in the state database and was matched to the suspect in the club attack.
The woman then identified Cruz in a lineup, Taylor said. During an interview with sheriff's detectives, Cruz said the woman approached him and asked him in Spanish if he wanted sex and she followed him into the bathroom and laid on the floor, but he refused her advances, according to the lawsuit. (The woman stated in her lawsuit that she doesn't speak Spanish.)
When a detective confronted him with DNA evidence, Cruz told him he may have masturbated by the woman, but he did not remember because he had been drinking while working, according to court papers.
In an initial criminal trial, the outcome was a hung jury on whether to convict Cruz; a jury in a subsequent criminal trial acquitted Cruz, Taylor said.
Taylor said the last 35 minutes of surveillance from 16 club security cameras could not be recovered. In court papers, the club's operators stated the data were corrupted.
Before this month's civil trial, Cruz vanished, Taylor said. But jurors got to see his testimony from criminal proceedings on tape, Taylor said.
During the civil trial, the jury heard testimony from an expert with the Santa Monica rape treatment center who said the woman's injuries were among the worst they had seen.
The news producer, according to court documents, now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and is haunted by memories of the attack.