Plaza Hotel.04232014 (Monika Kozak/NYLJ)
A former bartender drugged and raped inside the Plaza Hotel by a member of a Saudi prince’s entourage was awarded $1.25 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages by a federal judge on Tuesday.
In a lengthy damages opinion, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet of the Southern District of New York awarded unnamed plaintiff “Jane Doe” punitive damages while writing that “the sexual violence committed by the defendant undeniably constitutes morally reprehensible or utterly reckless behavior.”
“The Defendant’s conduct is made even more objectionable based on his belief that his relationship to the Prince of Saudi Arabia would keep him out of the reach of the law, as evidenced by his remark [after the rape] that the plaintiff, ‘Go ahead, call the police,’” Sweet also wrote while addressing the punitive award.
In calculating compensatory damages—$850,000 for past pain and suffering, and $400,000 for future pain and suffering—Sweet noted that “courts in this [Second] circuit and state have upheld large compensatory damage awards for sexual assault and rape victims, yet interestingly, such awards vary drastically—even where cases share similar facts.” He laid out the awards given in numerous other New York sexual assault lawsuits while noting that “the following cases offer a helpful starting point.”
Defendant Mustapha Ouanes was found liable of several civil counts against him, including sexual abuse, when Sweet granted summary judgment to Doe in December 2016 based on collateral estoppel grounds. Sweet cited a state court criminal jury’s 2012 conviction of Ouanes on five charges: rape in the first degree, criminal sexual act in the first degree, sexual abuse in the first degree, assault in the second degree, and attempted sexual abuse in the first degree.
Ouanes, Algerian-born and a trained mechanical engineer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his crimes, which included drugging and assaulting the plaintiff and her unnamed friend “Mary Doe” in 2010, Sweet said.
Sweet wrote of what occurred inside a Plaza Hotel room and its aftermath: “Ouanes repeatedly raped the plaintiff [Jane Doe] and sodomized her. At multiple points during the attack, which lasted several hours, the plaintiff tried to escape Ouanes’ grasp but was unable to do so. When the two [friends, Jane and Mary Doe] regained consciousness after the attack, Mary Doe dialed 911 while the defendant stared at them coldly and nonchalantly said, ‘Go ahead, call the police. Do whatever you want.’ The plaintiff states that the defendant’s heinous and disgusting violation of her body left her feeling horrified and worthless.”
Sweet added, “Plaintiff also states that although she does not remember all of the attack because she was so heavily drugged, what she does recall about the events of January 26, 2010 will stay with her forever.”
According to news reports, the woman raped was then a 26-year-old bartender and full-time nursing student. Ouanes—59 and in the midst of months-long stay at the Plaza with billionaire Saudi Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd and his entourage, which corralled more than 50 hotel rooms—introduced himself to the woman and her friend at a Greenwich Village bar. Ouanes, wearing a finely tailored suit, seemed benign at first, and the women accepted his invitation for an early morning breakfast at the hotel but, once there, were drugged, and the plaintiff was attacked, according to the reports.
Ouanes’ room was directly above the prince’s 4,000-square-foot suite. The prince is the son of Saudi Arabia’s late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was at one time said to be the world’s second-wealthiest person. Ounaes was present to “do the prince’s bidding,” the complaint said.
In addressing compensatory damages, Sweet detailed that the suffering felt by Jane Doe after the attack—from her hospital experience, to a suicide attempt, to Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, to her withdrawing for years from nursing school and losing her job.
“The record establishes that as a result of the defendant’s attack, the plaintiff suffered severe physical injuries, extreme emotional distress including PTSD, depression, and anxiety that persists today, and a complete upending of her life,” Sweet wrote. “The plaintiff’s past emotional trauma is evidenced by her attempted suicide, inability to maintain full time work since the attack, loss of self-esteem, autonomy, self dignity, and self-respect, in addition to her lack of faith in herself and the world.”
The judge noted that “determining an amount of compensatory damages is ‘an exercise in pretend exactitude,’” quoting Offei v. Omar, No. 11 Civ. 4283(SAS) (MHD), 2012 WL 2086294, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. May 18, 2012).
But he also wrote that while “there is significant variation for compensatory awards to victims of sexual assault,” the “guiding language is that the award be fair and reasonable compensation in light of the evidence.”
Regarding punitive damages, Sweet wrote that “under New York law, punitive damages are appropriate if the trier of fact concludes that ‘the wrong complained of is morally culpable, or is actuated by evil and reprehensible motives, not only to punish the defendant but to deter him,’” quoting Walker v. Sheldon, 10.N.Y.2d 401, 404 (1961).
Pointing to Ouanes’ alleged brazen remarks to the plaintiff and her friend after the attack, Sweet wrote, “The purpose of punitive damages is to deter and punish exactly this attitude and conduct.”
Benedict Morelli, of the Morelli Law Firm in Manhattan, and firm associate Sara Strickland, represented Jane Doe. Morelli said on Thursday that he thought Sweet’s damages opinion was well-reasoned and that he “did the right thing” by awarding the amounts he did.
“I think that Judge Sweet captured the essence of what happened,” Morelli also said. “What happened was just malicious and had very strong motive. The intentional act of it, and how despicable it was, made him [Sweet] say that it had to have a punitive award to it. That, in my opinion, was so absolutely important — he actually quoted malicious intent” when he awarded punitive damages.
Of his client’s reaction to the awards, Morelli said, “There’s no amount of money that you ever think is an accurate amount. It’s just so emotionally devastating [what happened to her]. The fact that we now have a decision from the court, which is somewhat different than when it’s from a jury, I think that my client feels some closure now.”
Morelli also noted that collecting the damages from Ouanes may be difficult. “In cases like this, it’s always difficult to recover the full amount,” he said, “but hopefully we’ll be able to recover at least a portion of the amount.”
Ouanes represented himself pro se. He is imprisoned and could not be reached.