Cosby faces big financial threat from civil lawsuits

02 Jan, 2016 4:24 pm

NEW YORK – Civil lawsuits accusing Bill Cosby of sex abuse and defamation could do major damage to the entertainer’s wealth, regardless of how a criminal prosecution plays out, lawyers who have handled similar cases said on Thursday.

Cosby, who has been accused by more than 50 women of sexually abusing them in incidents dating back decades, was charged in suburban Philadelphia on Wednesday in the only criminal case he has faced. The actor and comedian is charged with aggravated indecent assault against one of the women, a second-degree felony carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

The financial assets of the entertainer, who personified the model American family man in a long-running hit television show, are more at risk from at least seven ongoing civil suits that have been filed or joined by 13 women.

Cosby, 78, has denied the criminal and civil allegations. He has sued some of his accusers for defamation, and his lawyers have questioned their motives, suggesting they are after money.

A loss in the civil litigation could be very costly for Cosby, whose career made him one of the wealthiest people in the U.S. entertainment industry, several plaintiffs lawyers not involved in the suits said. Jury awards in cases where a person has claimed sex abuse or defamation can run into the tens of millions of dollars, not including his legal fees. “This is going to be enormously expensive for Cosby,” said Paul Callan, a New York lawyer who successfully represented the estate of retired American football player O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife in a civil case after Simpson was acquitted in her killing.


In a statement on Wednesday, a lawyer for Cosby, Monique Pressley, denounced the charges as unjustified and said Cosby would be exonerated. A spokesman for Cosby declined to comment on Thursday.

The allegations against Cosby – with so many accusers claiming they were drugged before he allegedly sexually assaulted them – mean he is particularly vulnerable to civil punitive damages, the lawyers said. Punitive awards are meant to punish and deter a defendant, while compensatory awards cover actual costs of plaintiffs.

Various media estimates have put Cosby’s net worth at between $380 million and $450 million in recent years. His ability to pay is likely to be a factor in a civil award or settlement, lawyers said.

“Any jury assessing this starts with, what amount of money punishes him given his net worth?” said Brad Edwards, a Florida lawyer who represents sex abuse plaintiffs. “Even if you said $20 million, you’re talking about a fraction of his net worth,” he added, so a jury could go even higher in determining a punitive award.

Big U.S. jury awards have to survive review by judges. Some states cap awards, and a punitive award generally must be less than 10 times the compensatory award.

In court papers filed on Dec. 14 in one suit, Cosby’s lawyers said women suing Cosby in Massachusetts are “engaged in a campaign to assassinate Mr. Cosby’s reputation and character” in order to “extract financial gain.” –Reuters

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