A North Carolina woman who was sued for defamation by the man charged in her rape on Hilton Head Island is now armed with attorneys who are helping her fight back.
The woman, who asked in a court record to be identified as Jane Doe, filed a counterclaim of defamation against 35-year-old Tyler Erpelding, of Des Moines, Iowa, in September. Doe is suing Erpelding not only for the pain and suffering she endured from the March 2018 reported rape, but also for “intentional infliction of emotional distress” and “abuse of process” stemming from Erpelding’s lawsuit, filed in June.
Mount Pleasant attorneys Julia Flumian and Daniel Luginbill committed to represent Doe weeks after The Island Packet broke the story about the first-of-its kind Beaufort County lawsuit. The case is unique not only because an accused rapist is suing his alleged victim for emotional injury stemming from a victim reporting a crime to police, but also because the criminal case is still pending.
Erpelding was indicted by a Beaufort County grand jury on Sept. 19 in the alleged March 2018 rape. In June, six months after he was arrested and charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct, Erpelding filed a defamation lawsuit against Doe, accusing her of “spreading false accusations of rape or sexual misconduct.”
Doe alleges that Erpelding’s lawsuit violates the S.C. Constitution’s protections on two fronts. It publishes her name, which is against state law, and it violates her right to be free of harassment and intimidation while the criminal case is in court.
On Sept. 11, Doe’s attorneys filed a nine-page response and counterclaim.
The accused rapist’s suit was filed “intentionally and recklessly,” and “in an effort to humiliate (Doe) to gain advantage in his ongoing criminal trial related to his rape of (Doe),” the counterclaim said.
His lawsuit reflects a national uptick in defamation cases filed against women who have reported sexual assault, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Erin Hall, chief development officer at Hopeful Horizons, a rape crisis center serving Beaufort, Jasper, Allendale and Colleton counties, hopes the counterclaim puts an end to that trend locally.
Hall called Erpelding’s lawsuit “frivolous,” and “only serving to do damage to survivors who are considering reporting sexual assault.”
“It’s disheartening because of the damage something like this that does to a victim,” Hall said. “It solidifies a victim’s concern that they will not be believed. It makes it so much harder.”
Hall said it’s very rare for a victim of sexual or domestic assault to file a lawsuit against his or her assailant.
“For a woman to come out and file not only a response, but a counterclaim too, is honestly inspiring,” Hall said. “I think what she’s doing will help other survivors get the strength they need and give them hope that they will have justice.”
In her response to Erpelding’s lawsuit — a legal procedure in civil cases in which the person sued disputes the claims made in the complaint — Doe provided her account of what happened on March 4, 2018, on the south end of Hilton Head Island.
She was making out with Erpelding on a Hilton Head beach when he violently pushed her up against a tree, the court document said. She told him she didn’t consent, but he “didn’t stop and raped her.”
Doe reported the incident to police less than a half hour after it occurred, according to the police report.
The filing also disputed Erpelding’s claim that he was defamed and exposed to public ridicule because Doe reported the alleged rape. As the Packet previously reported, before Erpelding’s defamation suit was filed, no news articles about Erpelding’s criminal sexual conduct charge could be found by searching Google, Lexis Nexis, and Facebook.
This is what attorneys call a Streisand effect — when the attempt to censor a defamatory statement backfires and increases public attention.
Doe’s lawyers argued that Erpelding himself published the claims by filing the lawsuit, and that Doe should not bear responsibility for whatever defamation he suffered.
Doe’s attorneys listed four counterclaims: assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and abuse of process.
Erpelding filed the lawsuit intending to intimidate, humiliate and inflict additional emotional distress on Doe, the counterclaim said.
It called Erpelding’s conduct “extreme and outrageous as to exceed all possible bounds of decency” and said it “should be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.”
Doe also alleges the lawsuit was “an intentional abuse of legal process for the ulterior purpose of gaining a legal advantage” in Erpelding’s criminal trial.
Erpelding is being represented by Beaufort attorney Jim Brown in both the criminal and civil cases. After the counterclaim was filed, Columbia attorney John Adam Ribock joined Brown in representing Erpelding in the civil case, according to online court documents.
Doe’s attorneys are asking the judge to dismiss Erpelding’s complaint and to reward her for unspecified damages from the rape and the lawsuit, plus repayment of court costs.
Is the lawsuit legal?
In a Sept. 28 filing, Doe’s attorneys asked the court to omit her actual name from the original complaint and to use “Jane Doe” instead.
Erpelding’s lawsuit, filed publicly online, contained Doe’s first and last name. Identifying a sexual assault victim, “serves to intimidate and harass her in violation of the Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights in the South Carolina Constitution,” the motion said.
Doe’s attorneys are referring to the South Carolina Victims’ Bill of Rights, adopted in 1996, which states the government should preserve and protect the victim’s right “to be free from intimidation, harassment, or abuse throughout the criminal justice process.”
“This lawsuit by its very nature exposes a rape victim to intimidation and harassment and presents a Hobson’s choice as to whether she should risk this exposure by proceeding with the criminal action,” Doe’s attorneys wrote in the motion. “Which, in actual fact, may have been the point of bringing this civil action.”
State law specifically prohibits publishing the names of sexual assault victims in “any newspaper, magazine or other publication.”
The publication in this case is referring to the lawsuit published in an online public index. It will be up to the judge to decide if that is considered “other publication.”
‘A new reality’ for survivors
While there aren’t any clear-cut laws in South Carolina to prevent an accused rapist from suing his alleged victim while the criminal case is ongoing, officials at South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA) are working to help survivors in such situations.
“Sadly, defamation lawsuits by alleged perpetrators are a new reality that sexual violence victims have to face and consider,” SCCADVASA attorney Patricia Ravenhorst told the Island Packet. “We ... are hopeful we can provide sexual violence victims access to attorneys to help advise them about how to protect their privacy and how to protect themselves from that kind of attack and then providing lawyers for them if they’re faced with a lawsuit. “
Ravenhorst said privacy is one of the most important things a survivor considers when debating whether to tell someone what happened. SCCADVASA officials are working to find ways to legally protect the names of victims in the public index.
“The devastating thing about this case is that up until this point, we have always tried to reassure to survivors that reporting to law enforcement wouldn’t create this type of exposure to a defamation lawsuit,” Ravenhorst said. “The outcome of this case will be important. Reporting to law enforcement shouldn’t carry this risk.”