A Georgia Rape Survivor's Settlement Might Be The Largest Sexual Assault Verdict In The US

When Hope Cheston was 14 years old, a security guard from a nearby apartment complex raped her on a picnic table. Six years later, Cheston is finally getting justice. She filed a civil lawsuit against the security company that employed her rapist, and on Tuesday, a Georgia jury awarded the rape survivor a settlement of $1 billion.

In March 2015, Cheston's mother — Renatta Cheston-Thornton — filed a lawsuit on her daughter's behalf against Crime Prevention Agency Inc. The guard who raped Cheston is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence on charges of statutory rape, but it wasn't until this week that Cheston's lawsuit against the security company was settled. According to the New York Times, Cheston's lawyers believe the $1 billion settlement is the largest jury verdict ever awarded in a United States sexual assault case.

Cheston is now 20 years old, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that she has chosen to speak out and share her story; she publicly told the Associated Press and other media outlets that she wanted her name used in stories about her. She told the Journal-Constitution that sexual assault "needs to be punished," but that she was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by the Clayton County jury's verdict.

“For the longest [time], I thought it would be pushed under the rug and no longer mattered ... but come to find out 12 strangers feel like what I went through and my story and how I feel six years later is worth a billion dollars,” Cheston told the Journal-Constitution.

The jurors hugged her after that, Cheston told the Washington Post, and said to her, "You're worth something."

Prior to the jury's decision, a judge had already ruled that Crime Prevention Agency Inc. was liable for negligence. According to Cheston's lawyer, L. Chris Stewart, the guard who raped Cheston should never have been hired because he was not licensed for the position. Like Cheston, Stewart was surprised by the verdict. He told the AP that he had asked the jury to assess the value of the pain that the rape caused Cheston, but didn't expect the jury to come back with a figure as high as $1 billion.

“I was really proud of the jury because there is no basis in the legal world for how high a rape verdict can be,” he told the AP.

National Crime Victim Bar Association Director Jeff Dion told the AP that verdicts of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars have been handed down before, but that "this jury was clearly trying to send a message" by handing down a $1 billion settlement.

Following the jury's verdict, Stewart told reporters at a news conference that a judge could reduce the amount the company owes to Cheston — especially because it is valued at less than $1 billion. The AP also reported that the company is likely to appeal the verdict. However, Stewart said that the jury's decision was still an important victory for women and for survivors of sexual violence.

"They said a little black girl in Clayton County who was raped is worth $1 billion," Stewart told reporters, while acknowledging that no amount of money could fully remedy the harm that was done. "That was a big win for us." Stewart also described the settlement as a "huge victory for women."

Cheston also regarded the verdict as a victory, and she consequently urged other survivors to come forward and pursue justice. In an interview with the New York Times, Cheston said that she wants her story to serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for other survivors.

“My verdict basically shows if you stick with it and do what you need to do to get your justice, there’ll be a brighter end," Cheston said.