Experts: Hilton Likely Settled Sex Assault Lawsuit to ‘Stop the Bleeding’
Hilton Management and a Cleveland woman, Kathleen Dawson, have settled a lawsuit that resulted in a $44-million jury verdict last month, The Texas Lawbook has learned.
Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed, but in November a Harris County found Hilton 90% liable for a March 2017 sexual assault by Larry Joe Clowers Jr., a 46-year-old co-worker, while the two were attending a work conference at the Hilton Americas-Houston.
The jury ruled Hilton negligent for failing to verify that Dawson, then 28, was a hotel guest staying with her fiancé in a room booked under her name, when a passerby reported seeing the young woman lying unconscious outside the hotel in the early morning hours, as Clowers stood over her with his trousers undone. The jury saw a surveillance video in which Houston police officers and Hilton staff wheeled a slumped-over Dawson into Clowers’ hotel room, where Dawson testified Clowers raped her.
Clowers has maintained that sex with Dawson came after an evening of drinking in the hotel bar, and had been consensual, despite medical evidence presented at trial that suggested otherwise.
The Houston jury’s $44-million verdict was believed to be the largest sexual-assault verdict awarded against a major hotel chain.
The Dec. 1 settlement ties loose ends between Dawson and Hilton, paving the way for Dawson’s lawyers to focus on her claims against Clowers, who was hit with roughly $4 million of the liability. Harris County District Judge Scot Dollinger is considering motions for a final judgment affirming the jury’s findings against Clowers.
After the verdict, Clowers’ attorney, Andy Drumheller vowed an appeal and told The Texas Lawbook that Dawson’s lawyers “got a sensational verdict based on conduct the jury found to be almost exclusively caused by the hotel’s alleged negligence.”
Dawson’s settlement with Hilton occurred two weeks after the jury rendered its Nov. 17 verdict, and the judge approved the settlement last Wednesday.
No details about the settlement are in court documents and the lawyers aren’t talking. Ed Blizzard of Houston’s Blizzard Law, one of Dawson’s lawyers at trial, declined to comment on the settlement. Greg Holloway of Houston’s Taylor Book Allen & Morris, Hilton’s lead lawyer at trial, did not return messages seeking comment.
Harris County prosecutors charged Clowers with felony sexual assault in 2017, but trial on the case was delayed on several occasions, then dropped without prejudice in 2018. The prosecution’s motion to dismiss included a notation that read “probable cause exists, but case cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt at this time.”
Drumheller, Clowers’ attorney in the civil case, did not respond to requests for comment on the settlement, nor did Clower’s criminal defense lawyer, Billy Belk.
Experts on such litigation say they are not surprised that the case was settled by Hilton.
“Given the evidence presented at trial that a Hilton employee helped deliver an intoxicated, non-responsive victim to the room of a sexual predator in violation of their own polices and industry standards, I suspect this is a case Hilton just wanted to quickly and quietly go away in the form of a confidential settlement,” Dallas plaintiffs’ lawyer Andy Payne said. “But we can hope that the verdict will result in Hilton improving policies and training to avoid another tragic sexual assault in the future.”
Experts say the brand’s reputation was likely a large factor in settling. Levi Benton, a former district judge in Houston who is now a business mediator and arbitrator, said internet search results would likely reveal news of the sexual-assault verdict associated with the Hilton Americas-Houston for more than a year.
“The business-reputation issues are immeasurable,” Benton said.
Brock Akers, a plaintiff’s attorney in Houston who once defended Kroger in a sexual-assault case brought by Blizzard, said big-name companies typically “pay a lot of money for people to have good, warm feelings about them,” so when a large jury verdict is out there against a major corporation, “it can hurt them in a huge way.
“You don’t get a verdict like that unless the facts are such that the jury got really upset at what they heard,” Akers said of the Hilton case. “There are often smart reasons to resolve things just to put it behind you and stop the bleeding.”
Akers said another motivation for settlement could have been Dawson’s desire to move on.
“She had her day in court, the jury obviously saw it her way and gave her a major, significant award,” Akers said. “It often happens that even a successful plaintiff doesn’t want to have to wait another two years and continue to live with the fact that the lawsuit is hanging over her head, and that, worst case scenario, she might have to go through the trial again and endure the same trauma.”
In addition to Blizzard, Dawson’s legal team included Anna Greenberg of Blizzard’s Houston law firm, Blizzard Law, and Dallas attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel of The Simpson Tuegel Law Firm.