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Lawyer for victim in WPI rape case challenges school on legal strategy

Worcester Polytechnic Institute.MATTHEW HEALEY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE

Worcester Polytechnic Institute last week sought to distance itself from a legal strategy suggesting that a former student who was raped during a study abroad program may have been at least partly responsible for putting herself in a dangerous situation. The college, saying it would never blame the victim, pointed a finger at the insurance company whose lawyers are handling the case.

But attorneys for the woman are challenging that scenario, asserting in a formal request to the college Friday that the school knew about, and did not object to, the controversial legal tactic.

The salvo is the latest development in a case that has gained national attention and cast an unflattering spotlight on WPI.

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The former student was raped by a security guard in 2012 at an apartment for students leased by the college. She and her family are suing the school, claiming WPI was negligent in its duty to ensure students’ safety.

WPI last week said its in-house attorneys are not handling this case. Rather, the school said, it is being litigated by lawyers from AIG, the school’s insurance provider in 2012. Although AIG no longer insures the school, its attorney David W. McGough is the lead lawyer representing WPI in the suit, according to court documents.

Last week, WPI president Laurie Leshin issued a statement saying AIG’s legal approach and language were not vetted or approved by the university.

But the formal request for admission filed by the victim’s attorney attempts to show that isn’t true.

Documents included with the request show attorney Jon E. Bartelson, the school’s assistant vice president and chief compliance officer, attended six depositions since late 2015 including the victim’s and signed a legal document in the case. The filing also says Bartelson attended two court hearings about the case in Worcester, including one last week.

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The filing, a copy of which was provided to the Globe by the victim’s attorneys at the firm Jones Kelleher LLP in response to a request, shows it was delivered Friday to attorneys representing WPI. The college now has 30 days to respond, according to court rules.

Leshin sent an e-mail to professors and students on Saturday, reaffirming the university’s stance that it had no role in the defense strategy and said it is attempting to positively affect the handling of the case going forward.

“Let me say again as clearly as I can: We did not vet, approve, or support this strategy,” Leshin’s e-mail said, according to a copy provided to the Globe by the school.

The president acknowledged that Bartelson attended court proceedings and that his name appeared on case documents.

Leshin said the school will be examining how information is shared internally at the school and will “act quickly to address any gaps.”

“But any shortcomings in not sharing information internally do not change the fact that we have never controlled the defense of this case,” the president wrote.

Attorneys on both sides declined to comment. Bartelson, contacted by phone and e-mail, did not respond.

The security guard at the condominium building where students lived was convicted of the rape. He had previously been convicted of a felony in Puerto Rico, for selling ammunition to undercover police, court documents show.

In other negligence cases, it is common for defense attorneys to try to prove that the person bringing the suit, in this case the rape victim, is also partially at fault.

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But many attorneys, including state Attorney General Maura Healey, said last week that the defense, known as comparative negligence, is inappropriate in this case because it involves rape.

“Never should a rape victim be held responsible for the atrocities committed against her,” Healey said.

Wendy Murphy, an attorney who specializes in sexual violence, said it is routine for in-house lawyers to monitor cases handled by external attorneys.

“The only thing more shocking than the fact that the victim was blamed for someone else’s rape of her body was hearing WPI claim that they had no knowledge of the strategy,” said Murphy, who is also an adjunct professor at New England School of Law.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.