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“Contributory negligence” defense is never appropriate in sexual assault civil cases

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) believes ‘contributory negligence’ is never an appropriate defense strategy for sexual assault-related cases. Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office has come under fire after the Centre Daily Times newspaper in Centre County, PA reported that a Sept. 5 filing in defense of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and three employees included “contributory negligence” as a defense argument, a legal argument that the victim of the crime – in this case, a brutal 27-minute sexual and physical assault of a 24 year-old prison employee by an inmate with numerous violent sexual assault convictions— may be partially responsible. 

“Victims of sexual assault are not responsible in any part for the violence another person(s) chose to inflict upon them,” PCAR CEO Delilah Rumburg said. “People who commit acts of sexual violence choose to commit the acts.  They choose to exploit vulnerabilities or situational opportunities that may exist to gain access to commit the crimes they are choosing to commit. ‘Negligence’ on the part of a sexual assault victim is nothing more than age-old victim blaming.”

The use of this defense in this particular case is sadly ironic.  The PA Department of Corrections oversees and administers sex offender treatment programs.  A core component of those programs is that the convicted offender must take full responsibility for the crime.

The Attorney General’s office has since issued a statement attesting that they are highly sensitive to the “extraordinary challenges victims face in both the criminal and civil processes, particularly in cases involving sexual assault,” and stated that Ms. Kane had no knowledge of the intent to use this defense strategy and had not reviewed the document before her name was affixed. 

They also stated that the inclusion of “contributory negligence” as a possible defense strategy should not be construed as an intention that it will in fact be used. PCAR was stunned to see the headline on the original report from the Centre Daily Times on September 24 which read “Kane responds to Rockview rape victim suit in filing, says woman partly responsible for brutal assault” and appreciates the clarification issued by the Attorney General’s office. We understand that including “contributory negligence” as a potential defense is a somewhat routine practice for civil cases.

We encourage the Attorney General’s office to examine their practices and consider barring this potential defense from sexual assault related cases, as the use of it by the highest law office in the Commonwealth damages the public’s trust in the ability to receive justice in the criminal and civil systems.  

About PCAR: Founded in 1975, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape advocates for the rights and needs of sexual assault victims and works to end sexual violence.  PCAR partners with a network of rape crisis programs to bring help, hope and healing around issues of sexual violence to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.