A Long Island judge has ordered former pediatrician Stuart Copperman to pay $22 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a 42-year-old woman who claimed he had sexually abused her from the time she was a toddler until she turned 18.
The ruling was the first to be handed down against Mr. Copperman, who has been accused of abusing scores of patients over decades. More than 100 other civil claims against him by former patients are pending.
Mr. Copperman did not mount a defense in the case and has no attorney of record. He did not respond to requests for comment.
The plaintiff, identified only as Jane Doe A.R. I, brought the lawsuit under the New York State Child Victims Act, which gives adult victims of child sexual abuse the right to sue their abusers until their 55th birthday. Prosecutors may file felony criminal charges on behalf of victims until their 28th birthday.
In addition, the law provided a one-year window after its enactment that allows people to file a civil suit at any age regardless of when the alleged abuse took place.
Many attorneys are reluctant to take on such cases against individuals, since the likelihood of being able to recover damages is small. Jane Doe A.R. I was represented by attorneys Michael Della, of Long Island, and Kristen Gibbons Feden, who prosecuted Bill Cosby and is now with a firm in Philadelphia.
In the decision handed down late last week, Nassau County Judge Leonard D. Steinman said that the years of abuse had caused the woman to develop severe and lasting psychological disorders and to suffer emotional distress, anxiety and depression that continue to this day.
“Plaintiff has been unable to participate in a normal, healthy romantic relationship — she has never dated — and though plaintiff is a highly educated and intelligent woman, she cannot maintain continuous employment” and receives disability payments, the judge wrote.
“Copperman’s abuse has robbed plaintiff of a normal, healthy and happy life,” the judge wrote in his decision. “The psychological scars resulting from the abuse are permanent.”
Jane Doe A.R. I did not speak until she was five years old, and developed a dissociative identity disorder as a result of the trauma, Ms. Gibbons Feden said.
“The thing it’s really important to convey is that sexual trauma doesn’t just go away,” Ms. Gibbons Feden said in an interview. “It has a lifelong impact on a person.”
For decades, Mr. Copperman had a thriving pediatric practice in Merrick, N.Y. He had a sterling reputation as a physician who made house calls and would respond in a medical emergency. He was sought after as an expert speaker.
Mr. Copperman often saw young female patients alone in the exam room, asking parents who accompanied them to wait in the reception area, under the guise of giving the girls an opportunity to speak freely.
His status in the community was such that when children and teens complained of abuse, many parents simply did not believe them.
Although the state’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct received a steady stream of sexual abuse complaints about Mr. Copperman for nearly two decades, it did not strip him of his medical license until December 2000. By then, he was 65 years old and ready to retire.
Officials could have acted much earlier: Two young women testified before a medical disciplinary panel in 1985 about their abuse, but the panel members — dominated by physicians — did not believe them.
Prosecutors in Nassau County, where Mr. Copperman had served as president of the local pediatric society, did not press criminal charges.
According to the judgment handed down last week, Mr. Copperman assaulted Jane Doe A.R. I at every examination, digitally penetrating her vagina and anus and stimulating her clitoris, even if she visited him for a sore throat or a cough.
Mr. Copperman insisted on “examining” her even when an appointment had been made for her sister, whom she accompanied.
The plaintiff was confused and discomfited by the doctor’s actions, but didn’t fully appreciate that the behavior constituted abuse until she was older and stopped being his patient, according to the ruling.
She continues to be traumatized by the constant abuse, which caused emotional distress as well as physical symptoms, loss of self esteem, shame and humiliation, the judge said.
“We would have loved to cross-examine him and really put him to the test,” said Mr. Della But, he added, “This is as close to justice as we could have gotten.”
“We fully intend to attempt to collect whatever assets he may or may not have.”