Jury Verdict Results in Largest Monetary Award of a Falsely Accused College Student Ever
Fake Sexual Assault Becomes $5.3 million Jury Verdict
By Kimberly C. Lau
On March 25, 2022, Kimberly C. Lau (first-chair) obtained a unanimous jury verdict on plaintiff’s defamation and civil conspiracy claims against defendants resulting in an award of $5.3mm following a week-long jury trial in South Carolina. James E. Figliozzi second-chaired the trial. This was one of the largest verdicts in the area for such causes of action involving a private individual plaintiff. Ms. Lau’s trial win came after nearly five years of litigation, which included depositions of 23 witnesses, approximately 10,000 pages of document discovery, 14 discovery motions, a writ to the Supreme Court of South Carolina that ended the state’s longstanding practice of allowing special referees decide discovery motions who were without jurisdiction to do so, and a successful outcome on all seven motions in limine filed before trial.
The defamation and civil conspiracy claims arose from a consensual sexual encounter between two Clemson University students, plaintiff Andrew Pampu and defendant Erin Wingo in October 2015. Ms. Wingo falsely characterized the sexual encounter as rape due to her alleged alcohol-induced incapacitation. However, the evidence showed that Ms. Wingo was not "incapacitated" at the time of the encounter, nor did she forget the incident. In fact, Ms. Wingo’s claimed lack of memory only occurred after she was confronted by her then-boyfriend (another Clemson student), defendant Colin J. Gahagan, who had learned about the sexual encounter from a fraternity group chat. After telling Mr. Gahagan that she did not remember the encounter due to being incapacitated, Mr. Gahagan insisted that "if you don’t remember, then it’s rape." From that point on, the two Clemson students, together with Ms. Wingo’s father, defamed Mr. Pampu to at least 20 individuals and conspired to get Mr. Pampu removed from Clemson University and his fraternity. Defendants’ collective plan worked, and Mr. Pampu was suspended from Clemson University and removed from his fraternity in 2016. In January 2017, Mr. Gahagan texted Mr. Pampu and admitted that he conspired with Ms. Wingo to pursue a false claim of rape against Plaintiff: "You're innocent. I lied in that hearing. Erin wanted to have sex that night."
During the week-long trial, 10 witnesses, 2 of whom were experts, all proved that Ms. Wingo did not, in fact, consume enough alcohol to render her so intoxicated that she could not have consented. Additionally, the documentary evidence was overwhelming and provided a roadmap of the defendants’ common plan against Mr. Pampu. All of the evidence pointed to the fact that defendants defamed plaintiff and conspired against him.
In 2019, Ms. Lau finalized plaintiff’s settlement with Clemson University to resolve plaintiff’s claims against the University for violations of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Due Process Clause, including other related state causes of action in a separate federal lawsuit. The University was required to remove the disciplinary notation from plaintiff’s transcript and make a monetary payment to plaintiff for his damages.
Kimberly C. Lau, is Partner and Chair of the Title IX and College Discipline Practice of the law firm of Warshaw Burstein LLP in New York. Ms. Lau concentrates her practice on Title IX actions, college disciplinary matters and commercial litigation.