As the sex abuse scandal involving Harvey Weinstein expands daily, a lingering question is: What did his company know about his alleged history of mistreating women?
In the last two days, three more women have accused Weinstein of forced sex acts. Actress Natassia Malthe on Wednesday accused him of raping her at the Sanderson Hotel in London in February 2008. On Tuesday, actress Dominique Huett and former production assistant Mimi Haleyi came forward with additional assault allegations against Weinstein.
The board of directors at Weinstein Co. has said they are “shocked and dismayed” by the accusations of sexual assault and misconduct by the mini-studio’s co-founder. Weinstein’s brother, Bob, and an anonymous group of employees have said they were ignorant of their former co-chairman’s alleged conduct.
But Huett says the company knew about the executive’s bad behavior and failed to protect women who came into his orbit. Her lawsuit, the first civil case against the company since the allegations went public, said the studio and its board were “aware of Weinstein’s pattern of using his power to coerce” actresses into sexual acts.
Huett alleged in her lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, that Weinstein lured her into a Beverly Hills hotel for a meeting about her career in 2010 and made unwanted sexual contact. The lawsuit is seeking millions of dollars in damages, including punitive damages and money to cover the costs of medical and psychological care.
Female Weinstein employees were used as “honeypots” to lure victims into meetings under the pretense of normal business, giving them a false sense of security, the suit alleges. Weinstein would then dismiss the so-called honeypot employees, leaving him alone with the victim, an act of trickery detailed in the New Yorker article that first brought sexual assault allegations to light.
"This case is really about putting the casting couch on trial," Huett’s attorney Jeffrey Herman said at a news conference Wednesday. "It's an indictment of Hollywood."
Legal experts said the suit probably is the first of many, as alleged victims continue to come forward, increasing the potential liability to the studio.
“It’s certainly not surprising,” said Ann Fromholz, a Pasadena employment lawyer who has handled sexual harassment cases for more than 20 years. “With all these claims out there, anybody would’ve expected lawsuits to follow against the company and Weinstein himself.”
A spokeswoman for Weinstein has said that “allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied.”
Weinstein Co. has not yet responded to the lawsuit, but the company’s board previously said it is “shocked and dismayed by the recently emerged allegations of extreme sexual misconduct and sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein. Any suggestion that the Board had knowledge of this conduct is false.”
Herman said executives must have long been on notice of his behavior, based on the decades-long history of allegations and confidential settlements now being made public.
“We allege the Weinstein Company knew that Harvey Weinstein ... was using his position...to bring young, aspiring actresses into vulnerable places where he would then prey on them," he said.
Huett said she met Weinstein at a bar at the Peninsula Hotel to talk about her career, when he demanded they go up to his room. He gave her champagne and came back into the room in a bathrobe, insisting on her giving him a massage and later performing oral sex on her, despite her repeatedly saying no, she said at the news conference.
"I felt too frozen to run out of the room," she said Wednesday.
Huett said she didn't report the incident to Weinstein Co. and had no independent knowledge of whether others at the company knew what happened in the hotel room.
Some legal experts were skeptical of the complaint. Under California law, companies are liable for sexual harassment by managers but that only applies to cases involving employees and job applicants, said Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases.
“This is going to get kicked out of court,” said Katz, after reviewing the complaint. “As a practical matter, they're trying to say the Weinstein Co. had a duty to protect every actress and every woman in the world from sexual misconduct by Weinstein, and that's just not going to fly.”
Though the statute of limitations for negligence is two years in California, Herman argues that Huett can still bring the claim because the statute resets when the alleged victim learns of the negligence.
Even if that argument holds up, negligence on the part of the company will be difficult to prove, Katz said. Herman did not present any new evidence of the company’s alleged knowledge, but said he expects to uncover it during discovery.
David Boies, a lawyer who has represented Weinstein and his companies, has repeatedly said the board members knew of settlements with women as early as 2015, when he re-upped his contract.
Remaining board members have denied that claim, and have blamed lawyers including Boies for shielding Weinstein from scrutiny.
Weinstein Co. board members Lance Maerov and Tarak Ben Ammar told the Financial Times last week that they had tried to investigate Weinstein, only to be blocked by lawyers including Boies, whom they accused of withholding Weinstein’s personnel file from them.
Boies disputed that claim in a letter to the British paper, calling the assertion that they didn’t know about settlements “simply false.”
Neither Boies nor the board responded to requests for comment.
Weinstein kept the allegations out of the public spotlight by making private settlements through a network of lawyers, said several people with knowledge of the matter but were not authorized to comment. Women who settled with Weinstein signed strict nondisclosure agreements. Weinstein made eight settlements with women, according to a report in the New York Times.
In all, more than 50 women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct. The latest victim, Malthe, a Norwegian-born actress, told reporters on Wednesday that Weinstein barged into her London hotel room in 2008, suggesting that he would offer her a part in an upcoming film if she would sleep with him.
Malthe said that after she told him she was not interested, Weinstein pushed her back and raped her. “I laid still and closed my eyes and just wanted it to end,” she said at a news conference in New York. “I was like a dead person. Afterwards I lay there in complete disgust.”