A Haverhill woman won a $4 million verdict Tuesday against the companies that owned and managed the Radisson Hotel parking garage where she was raped, in what may be the largest award for such a case in Massachusetts history.
The jury determined that the companies were negligent in not providing proper security in the Stuart Street parking garage, especially in light of a rape that occurred there 12 days before the attack on Kira Wahlstrom.
With interest, the value of the award for Wahlstrom, now 41, increases to an estimated $6.6 million, said her lawyer, Don Keenan.
The verdict will “certainly reverberate through the business community to be more responsible owners,” said Martin Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association. “Hopefully, this [case] will result in better protection and better safeguards for the public.”
Wahlstrom was getting out of a garage elevator in the early morning hours of May 1, 2009, when Jose Ruben Rivera III grabbed her hair, dragged her to a stairwell, and sexually assaulted her for 25 minutes, court records show. She was the homeless man’s second victim in the garage in 12 days.
After the earlier rape, hotel officials increased security with several measures, including posting an additional late night guard, defense lawyers argued.
But on the night of the rape, both security guards were stationed in the hotel lobby, too far to hear Wahlstrom’s screams for help, Keenan said.
Outside the courtroom, Wahlstrom hugged her lawyers, her face red with emotion.
“I’m happy with the choice the jury made,”she said. “I hope I can start to move on and close this chapter of my life.”
JPA IV Management Co. and JPA 1 Management Co., which owned and managed the hotel and garage, were found negligent by the Suffolk Superior Court jury, concluding the five-year case.
LAZ Parking Limited LLC, which helped manage the garage, was cleared of responsibility in the suit.
The jury’s award “may in fact be one of the largest, if not the largest, awards” ever provided to a victim of assault in a Massachusetts rape and liability case, said Healy.
He said the verdict holds business owners liable for injuries caused by foreseeable criminal acts on their premises. The garage, he said, should have taken greater precautions, and failed to live up to required standards of care.
“It’s a national problem, a wake-up call to all of us: parking garages are not as safe as we think,” Keenan said. “This is not a ma and pa parking garage — there are 700 spaces. If anybody should have the resources to keep customers safe, it should be this company, and they didn’t.”
But Lawrence Kenney, a lawyer representing JPA 1 and IV, said Tuesday that the companies did all they could to protect customers.
“The JPA defendants are confident they did everything that was reasonable to address this potentially happening,” he said. “[The jury] disagrees, but we respect their decision.”
Officials from JPA 1 and JPA IV did not respond to calls for comment. The companies “have not yet decided on whether to appeal or not,” Kenney said in an e-mail.
John Jarosak, a lawyer for LAZ Parking, a nationwide company, welcomed the verdict.
“We’re obviously pleased that the jury found [the case] in our favor, and I wish Ms. Wahlstrom nothing but the best going forward,” he said.
Keenan said Wahlstrom paid “a terrible price” to get her verdict, enduring the “agony of trial” for five long years.
The jury’s finding drew praise Tuesday from advocates for sexual assault victims.
Isa Woldeguiorguis, executive director of the Center for Hope and Healing in Lowell, a group that supports sexual assault survivors, called the verdict a “positive sign for rape victims who come forward.”
“It’s a positive sign for the greater community to take the issue [of rape] more seriously,” she said.
Maude Gorman, 21, a victim of gang rape who is a youth ambassador for the center, praised the verdict as a “huge win for survivors.”
“It’s a push in the right direction to show justice can be served,” Gorman said, who is Miss Massachusetts World 2015. “It goes to prove that as a society, we’re really coming to terms with combating sexual assault.”
Rosa Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.