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$8.4 Million Judgment in Defamation Suit

by Christopher Zoukis

A retired Army colonel who was denied a promotion due to a rape accusation has been awarded $8.4 million in a defamation lawsuit filed against his accuser.

Col. David “Wil” Riggins, a highly-decorated veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, was up for promotion to brigadier general in July 2013 when he was accused of raping a fellow cadet at West Point in 1986. The accuser, Susan Shannon of Everett, Washington, claimed that Riggins sexually assaulted her after she was provided free beer on the West Point campus and drank herself unconscious. Shannon, 52, further alleged that Riggins had “smugly admitted he did indeed rape” her.

Riggins vehemently denied the claim, and reportedly waived his right to an attorney and gave a statement. When an Army Criminal Investigative Division investigation was launched, he reported he had a short relationship with Shannon in 1983 that included at least one consensual sexual encounter. Shannon called Riggins’ version of events “a complete fabrication.”

When Shannon resigned from the military academy in the spring of 1986, court records indicated that she denied having been sexually assaulted. It wasn’t until July 15, 2013 – around 27 years later, and just 13 days after Riggins’ nomination to become a one-star general was announced – that she made the accusation in an article posted on her online blog.

While the military’s investigation was inclusive, saying it could not prove or disprove Shannon’s allegations, then-Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh ultimately recommended that Riggins not be promoted, writing, “I do not have faith and confidence in Colonel Riggins’ judgment and character.” Riggins, who was never charged with rape or sexual assault, then retired and filed a defamation complaint against Shannon.

In his suit, Riggins wrote that Shannon’s rape claim was “provably false” and that she made the accusation “to intentionally derail [his] promotion.” Shannon countered that she did not know Riggins was up for promotion when she made the claim less than two weeks after the announcement of his nomination.

“I had no idea, I don’t read the military press,” she said.

The defamation case was remanded from federal court to the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia on April 13, 2015, and went to trial in July 2017.

The jury did not believe Shannon or credit her allegations. After a six-day trial that ended August 1, 2017, the jurors returned a verdict in favor of Riggins, which included an award of $3.4 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, “to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again.” Juror Marshall Reinsdorf said the jury had several problems with Shannon’s testimony, and found her statements about being raped were false, reckless or negligent.

“Honestly, we thought who was telling the truth was too obvious to be discussing,” he stated. “We held a vote, and everybody believed the colonel. The only argument was how big the damages were going to be.” See: Riggins v. Shannon, Circuit Court of Fairfax County (VA), Case No. CL-2014-9220.

Shannon, who had written other controversial comments on her blog, such as the mass shooting of school children in Newtown, Connecticut being “a planned event” orchestrated by the U.S. government, said she was devastated by the verdict.

“I feel like I’m a financial slave for the rest of my life,” she remarked. “I told the truth in my article and at trial.”

Riggins, on the other hand, felt vindicated by the outcome.

“I think the jury’s verdict, not only that they found her statements were false and defamatory, but the amount of damages they assessed, speaks volumes,” he said.

Due to state caps on punitive damages the total jury award was expected to be reduced significantly, while Shannon and her attorney indicated they would file an appeal. 

Sources: www.chicagotribune.com, www.washingtonpost.com

Related legal case

Riggins v. Shannon


 

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