Published February 21, 2008
DURHAM, N.C. – More than three dozen current and former Duke lacrosse players filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the university, saying the elite school "turned its back" on them.
They also are suing the city of Durham and others involved in the case.
The players claim they suffered emotional distress during the since-discredited rape case pursued against three of their teammates.
Lead attorney Chuck Cooper said Thursday the private university refused to support the players to protect the school's image.
"They simply turned their back on these students," said Cooper. "Players have made every effort to resolve these issues with Duke. There is no other course at this point."
The university issued a statement Thursday in response, though it said it hadn't yet seen the lawsuit.
"Their legal strategy — attacking Duke — is misdirected and without merit," said university vice president and general counsel Pamela Bernard. "We will vigorously defend the university against these claims."
The civil lawsuit filed Thursday was on behalf of 38 players who were not charged in the notorious case.
Lawyers for the players accuse Duke University, the City of Durham and several school and police officials of fraud, abuse and breach of duty for supporting the prosecution of the case.
The lawsuit accuses Duke of ignoring, suppressing and discrediting evidence that proved the players innocent, of idly standing by while the players suffered abuse and harassment on campus, and of imposing discipline that implied the team was guilty.
Duke suspended and then canceled the highly ranked team's season in the wake of the rape allegation.
Bernard said that Duke had offered to cover attorneys fee costs or other out-of-pocket expenses, but the players rejected that offer.
The lawsuit says Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong and his investigators hid and fabricated evidence, adding the city of Durham should be held accountable for Nifong's actions.
But Cooper said the lawsuit doesn't name Nifong, who was disbarred and spent a night in jail for his handling of the case, because of his pending declaration of bankruptcy. Nifong is claiming more than $180 million in liabilities, almost all tied to the prospect of losing two other lawsuits stemming from the rape case.
Thursday's suit on behalf of 38 unindicted players and nine members of their families seeks unspecified damages for invasion of privacy, emotional distress and other injuries. Cooper discussed the lawsuit at a news conference in Washington, D.C.
The three players who Nifong charged — and who were later declared innocent — have also sued the former prosecutor, the City of Durham and the police detectives who handled the case. They reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the university in June.
Three other players filed a suit last year, accusing the school, Nifong and numerous others of a conspiracy that inflicted emotional distress.
None of the lawsuits were filed against the woman who said she was raped. In the lawsuit filed Thursday, the accuser was called a "deeply mentally disturbed, drug-dependent young woman."
Nifong won indictments against Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann after the woman accused them of raping her at a team party in March 2006. The case then unraveled amid the woman's changing story and lack of evidence.
State prosecutors who took over the case from Nifong dropped all charges in April 2007, and Attorney General Roy Cooper said Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann were innocent victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse." Nifong was later disbarred and spent a night in jail after being found in contempt of court for lying to a judge.
Nifong filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection earlier this year, citing liabilities of $30 million for each of the cleared players as potential damages in their lawsuit. Another $90 million in liabilities was cited as possible damages in the second lawsuit.
Bankruptcy administrator Michael D. West recommended last week that Nifong not get that protection because he makes too much money.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.