GO train assault haunts victim


This woman, who was sexually assaulted aboard a GO train in 1991, is still trying to win a compensation award she might call adequate. She is on her fourth set of lawyers.

16 years ago, she was attacked on a GO train. She's still fighting to get over it

Nov 07, 2007 04:30 AM

Staff Reporter

Debbie admits she drinks too much and has trouble holding down jobs "People say I have an attitude problem."

She also must take sleep medication but, even then, wakes up a couple of times a night in a fright.

Now 33, she looks back in horror at the day when her life became a waking nightmare.

It was 16 years ago when Debbie, then 17, was beaten and sexually assaulted on a GO train. The teen had been on her way from her Oakville home to a George Michael concert in Toronto.

She was sitting by herself in the upper level of an otherwise empty car between Oakville and Port Credit when a man came up behind her, choked her and dragged her into a washroom. He sexually assaulted her and knocked her unconscious. She needed dental work and suffered permanent partial paralysis in her right eye.

The crime was so shocking that the news flashed across television screens, made bold newspaper headlines, launched a well-publicized trial and led to security enhancements aboard GO trains.

Police arrested and charged a man in the attack but he was acquitted after a trial. No one else has been prosecuted.

In the many years since, Debbie the Toronto Star won't reveal her real name to protect her identity has tried in vain to win a compensation award that she might call adequate.

Her case has landed on the desks of four sets of lawyers, starting with Kevin Boon and Mary Eberts in 1992, William Taberner in 1997 and now Marshall Kirewskie, an Oakville team.

Her third lawyer, Taberner, secured a $100,000 out-of-court settlement with GO Transit in 2002. However, had she taken that money, her legal fees and other costs would have eaten up all that and more, her new lawyers say.

"She's going to owe money and that's unconscionable," said Cassandra Kirewskie of Marshall Kirewskie.

So, how could someone go through four sets of lawyers and not get what she claims is justice after 16 years?

Her first lawyer, Boon, said Debbie's mother terminated the retainer with him.

The next lawyer, Eberts, terminated the case after Debbie failed to provide a $5,000 retainer.

"At that point I was in high school," Debbie said. "Where would I get the money?"

There is also a dispute about that $100,000 settlement offer and the instructions Debbie had given her lawyers.

Debbie charges that she didn't accept the package because she wanted to go to trial. Her new lawyers argue in court documents that Debbie agreed to the settlement only if Taberner could add to that $100,000 from an indemnity fund. Taberner claims in court documents he was acting on her instructions to accept the $100,000.

GO Transit and CN Rail Co. went to court and got the deal enforced, leaving Debbie with little room to manoeuvre.

Taberner wouldn't talk directly to the Star, either via email or by phone, citing solicitor-client privilege.

GO Transit didn't respond to a request for a statement.

Now with her fourth legal team, Debbie is determined to continue the fight.

"I couldn't live with myself knowing that the lawyers did what they did and walked away," she said.

But Debbie is not without blame in this tortured journey through a legal maze.

As part of its defence, GO Transit said Debbie was a non-paying customer and that she was caught without a ticket that day. In effect, she was a trespasser and GO Transit and CN said they don't knowingly permit non-paying passengers to remain on board their trains.

Debbie and her lawyers contest that position, arguing that countless numbers of people rushing for a train often forget to buy a ticket and are allowed to continue the trip under the honour system.

GO Transit and CN also said there were no security shortcomings and they aren't liable for the attack on Debbie.

But her new lawyers point to the fact that GO Transit made security improvements later in the week of the attack.

To protect passengers, GO implemented a system of grouping passengers on sparsely populated trains, and it sped up a $2.85 million program to install emergency safety strips above windows which, when pressed, would summon security.

"It seems to me that the ridership in the past 16 years has benefited from those security measures," Kirewskie said.

"So I don't understand why GO Transit doesn't feel a moral duty to do something to compensate her instead of forcing her to argue this through the courts."

But after all the legal twists and turns, Debbie has turned on her previous lawyers, blaming them for missing deadlines for filing her civil actions and for not launching a civil suit against the accused.

Last year, Paul Marshall and Kirewskie filed a $2.5 million lawsuit on her behalf against the three former lawyers and their law firms, claiming negligence.

Mediation attempts between all the parties have collapsed in the past few months, so the case is moving toward the regular stream of litigation.

Only one of the lawyer's solicitors would speak with a reporter.

Sean Dewart, who is acting for Eberts, said the original claim against GO Transit had its difficulties.

"Just because you're assaulted on a GO Train doesn't mean that GO Transit did something that the law recognizes as being wrong," he said. "It may just be that 16 years down the road, she's looking for someone to blame."

Dewart said Debbie had settled for $100,000 and "now she doesn't like the settlement." He also accused Debbie of "using the media" to bring the lawyers to the table.

Dewart was the lawyer for Jane Doe (a pseudonym), who in July 1998 was awarded $220,000 and $2,000 a year for the next 15 years after a Superior Court of Justice ruling that police were negligent when they failed to issue a warning about a rapist in the area. In 1986, Jane Doe had been raped at knifepoint after her attacker climbed over her apartment balcony.

Debbie said her life is a mess.

She's had eight jobs in the past seven years and has been fired from many of them. A university arts graduate, she said it's not for incompetence.

"People say I have an attitude problem," Debbie said, adding she wasn't like this before the assault.

She said she drinks too much and must take sleeping pills. She was also prescribed antidepressant medication following the attack.

Debbie said she still suffers some paralysis in her right eye and has been damaged psychologically. Her lawyers are suggesting a return to counselling.

Still, she's making progress in pulling her life together.

She has held her current job for about nine months, drives a 2004 Mazda and has a live-in boyfriend.

However, she said she has credit card debt of about $20,000 and figures her total debts, including legal fees, student loans and what she owes her parents, amount to at least $150,000.

Kirewskie said the lawyers have taken a technical approach to this case when "what's needed is a justice approach."

Debbie's new legal team has taken the case on without a retainer because Debbie has little money to pay their fees.

Asked if they were taking the case pro bono, they said they had worked out a "special arrangement" with their client.

The new lawyers say this case is a severe test for the integrity of the legal system.

"It's 16 years on and she's still living this nightmare and now it's a legal nightmare," Kirewskie said.