CANADA: University settles with rape victim after fallout

A university in Ottawa has settled a case where it was being accused of putting undue blame on a woman who was sexually assaulted in one of its laboratories. It had argued that the woman should have better protected herself. Carleton University's views had been revealed in a statement of defence for a civil lawsuit the woman had launched against the institution.

The unnamed 25-year-old had been suing Carleton for C$535,000 (US$485,000). Her statement of claim said the university was negligent with regard to safety, and cited the need for security cameras in door and tunnel entrances, and swipe cards in laboratory buildings.

The violent attack, in which the woman's face was repeatedly smashed to the floor and left her needing jaw surgery, took place in August 2007 at 11:30pm , a half-hour after her professor had left the lab.

The university in its statement of defence had struck back with its own claim of negligence. It had said the woman failed to keep a "proper lookout" for her own safety and chose not to lock the door of the laboratory. It had added that since she was working late, she should have registered with university security.

"I find it absolutely embarrassing and deplorable to see the university continue to blame the victim and reinforce the outdated and harmful stereotype that sexual assault is the fault of the woman," Kimalee Phillip, President of Carleton's Graduate Students' Association said in a release.

But others, such as Bruce Feldthusen, Dean of Law at the University of Ottawa, see court statements as inherently inflammatory.

"Pleadings are pleadings and everybody is obligated to overstate their case at the pleadings stage," Feldthusen told the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. "There's a case, I think, where the legal culture is just a little different from what people think."

Since the attack two years ago, Carleton has spent an additional C$1.6 million to beef up campus security, including more than tripling the number of video cameras and installing swipe-card readers in laboratory buildings.

That rhetoric's ability to incite anger on the campus may now have been minimised. This past Friday (14 Aug), the lawyer for the woman announced that a settlement had been reached between his client and the university.

Andrew Lister issued a press release saying that an agreement was reached that was satisfactory to all parties. In the statement, the lawyer recognised both the efforts that the university took to make it more secure and that, despite a litigation process being painful for a victim, Carleton's statements that the woman should have been on lookout or registered with security were all behind them. "We do not believe the university's statement of defence in any way reflects an institutional belief that the plaintiff is to blame for the assault that took place."