Jury finds Sewanee and student at fault; awards student $26,500

photo "John Doe" exits the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building earlier in his trial with his mother, Mary "Doe", left, and attorneys Elisha King, bottom right, and Charles B. Wayne, top right.

A former student who engaged in a three-year legal battle with Sewanee: The University of the South said the Friday verdict in his case proves the school unfairly handled a rape accusation against him in 2008.

A federal jury awarded $26,500 to the former student, identified only as John Doe in court documents, who sued the school for negligence and breach of contract. He had asked for $5.5 million.

University spokeswoman Laurie Saxton said in a news release Friday that the low amount of damages shows that the jury thought Doe "received a fair hearing."

"It is significant that John Doe essentially was awarded only a refund of his tuition and that the jury declined to award damages for any injury to his reputation, emotional injury, or loss of earning capacity," Saxton wrote.

Charles Wayne, one of Doe's two Washington D.C.-based attorneys, said after the hearing that, even though they are disappointed in the award, the jury's verdict "confirms what we have been saying all along - the verdict is a victory for the rights of students accused of sexual assault on campus."

When asked if he would appeal the results of the trial, Wayne said, "we are considering all of our options."

The university's attorney, Rosemarie Bryan, said she has no plans to appeal.

At the end of a seven-day trial, the jury awarded an amount far less than the $5.5 million Doe had sought. Jurors found the school had been negligent but that it did not breach its contract with Doe, another claim in the lawsuit.

The jury, which deliberated for about 5 1/2 hours over two days, assigned 53 percent of the fault to the university and 47 percent to Doe. The percentage of fault determines how much of the jury's award Doe receives. Assigning 53 percent of the fault to the university means Doe receives $26,500.

Jurors declined to comment on their decision.

Following the hearing, in an exclusive interview with the Times Free Press and under an agreement of continued anonymity, Doe explained his thoughts about the three-year ordeal.

"I'm very happy with just the fact that they've essentially vindicated everything I've been saying over the last three years," he said. "A federal jury did find that they didn't allow me to defend myself."

He has continued his education at another college after leaving Sewanee and said he's doing his best "to move on and not let it dominate my life."

Doe said he is thankful that U.S. District Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice allowed him to continue under a pseudonym throughout the process, but that he would have continued with the lawsuit nonetheless.

"I had to do everything I could to clear my name," he said.

Doe and a woman identified only as A.B. in court documents had sexual intercourse in his dorm room on Aug. 29, 2008.

A.B. left the room after the act to use the restroom down the hall then returned. She stayed until the next morning and later called police to report Doe had raped her at about 7 a.m.

On Sept. 16, 2008, A.B. met with Sewanee Dean Eric Hartman to report the alleged rape. Hartman charged Doe under the school's sexual assault policy and began an investigation.

Two days later, Hartman told Doe about the accusation and that the hearing would be the following day. He told Doe to meet with his faculty adviser, write a statement and bring a character witness.

Doe said Friday that he was "stunned" at the allegation but at the time trusted the school would treat him fairly so he followed Hartman's instructions.

At the hearing, Doe was found guilty of violating the school's sexual assault policy after the three-member discipline committee decided he should have known A.B. was unable to consent because she had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.

Months later, after filing a lawsuit, Doe learned that A.B. was on four medications for anxiety, depression and narcolepsy. She left the school during the fall 2008 semester to seek drug and alcohol treatment. She never sought criminal charges against Doe.

Saxton said Friday that the university had not significantly changed its sexual assault policies since the accusation against Doe.

"We would not necessarily change our process or policy because of the trial, but we're always reviewing our procedures," she said.

Doe hopes Sewanee and other schools look closely at how administrators treat students accused in such cases.

"You have to realize what you're doing. You have to take this seriously," he said. "They need to be fair to everyone."

This article has been revised on September 3, 2011 to reflect the following clarification: The original headline stated the amount awarded John Doe was $50,000.