The president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute defended the college Tuesday amid an uproar over a lawsuit in which university attorneys suggested that a former student raped during a study abroad program in 2012 was partially to blame for putting herself in a dangerous situation.
President Laurie Leshin, in an e-mail to the WPI community, said such a characterization runs counter to university values.
She also said the university parted ways with the insurance company whose lawyers handling the case several years ago and did not vet their legal strategy, even as she acknowledged that those same attorneys are still handling the case. As recently as last month they filed a motion that argued the victim acted irresponsibly in the hours leading up to the assault.
"WPI has never and would never blame a victim for being raped," Leshin wrote. "WPI strongly believes that the person responsible for this rape is the rapist. And he is in prison."
The case has stirred outrage among advocates for rape victims, who fumed at the notion that a victim could somehow have "asked for it."
But legal experts said the reasoning behind the school's argument in challenging the former student's civil suit is more nuanced than it first appears, even as they called the idea of blaming a rape victim repugnant.
The case stems from the rape of a then-WPI student in Puerto Rico. A security guard at the apartment building where students lived was convicted of the attack and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Subsequently, the student and her parents filed a negligence suit in civil court against WPI, blaming the school for failing to properly ensure that the apartment building was safe for students. The security guard was a convicted felon at the time of the rape.
Lawyers representing the school, in recent filings, asserted that the rape victim — referred to in court papers as Jane Doe, to protect her identity — was partially responsible. They said she ignored information and training provided by the college, as well as her own common sense, and she drank excessively that night and followed the security guard onto the roof, where the crime occurred.
According to court filings, David W. McGough is the attorney representing WPI via the insurance company AIG. McGough works at the the law offices of Thomas M. Franco, in Boston, according to the filings. Franco is listed on LinkedIn as a staff attorney for AIG. McGough Tuesday did not respond to requests for comment.
Doe is represented by attorneys at the firm Jones Kelleher, LLP.
In a deposition, WPI attorneys asked Doe whether her parents had taught her not to get in the car with strangers or take candy from them and whether she thought it was a bad idea to follow the guard onto the roof, records show.
Legal experts said Tuesday this line of argument is more nuanced than it appears because the school's defense is part of a negligence case filed in civil court against WPI, not part of the criminal case filed against the security guard.
Such negligence cases usually involve slip-and-fall and motor vehicle accidents, attorneys said. In those cases, the defense often argues that the person bringing the suit is partially to blame, an argument known as comparative negligence. A jury typically assigns a percentage of the blame to each party.
In the WPI case, attorneys representing the college have not claimed that Doe was responsible for rape but instead asserted that she was negligent by putting herself in harm's way.
"Prior to the incident, Jane Doe knew that there were simple steps she could take to minimize or eliminate the risk of sexual assault, including not walking alone, not drinking to excess, and not going to unfamiliar or secluded places with people she did not know," the school argued in legal filings.
But several attorneys said this negligence case is different because it involves rape. John C. Clune, an attorney in Colorado who specializes in campus rape and sexual assault, said the use of that defense in this set of circumstances crosses a line.
"I don't know how you contribute to your own rape, that you somehow should have expected that this individual was going to rape you," Clune said.
Marc L. Breakstone, a personal injury attorney in Boston who said he has seen the comparative negligence defense many times, called the tactic in this instance "repugnant."
"It's a strategy that, frankly, often backfires in trial because the jury gets incensed," Breakstone said.
Timothy Burke, a Needham lawyer who also handles negligence cases, said while expected, the circumstances of this case make the negligence argument alarming.
"I hate using the phrase, but it's bad optics," Burke said.