Victim of Attack at Shoe Store

A young Billings woman attacked at the Payless Shoesource where she worked in 1997 was awarded $1.5 million from the company Friday -- one of the largest judgments ever in Yellowstone County.

The District Court jury awarded the woman $500,000 for actual damages and ordered another $1 million in punitive damages from the Kansas-based chain of shoe stores that didn't have any security in its Heights store when the woman was attacked. The woman, 18 at the time, was alone when she was assaulted by Timothy Luplow, one of the most prolific sexual offenders ever in Yellowstone County.

"I think that when these lawyers get on a jet tonight, back to Topeka, Kan., with a $1.5 million judgment in their pockets, they will re-evaluate whether to have these young kids working alone at night without any security,'' said the woman's attorney, Clifford Edwards. "Seven figures should get their attention.''

The woman, whom The Gazette has chosen not to name, embraced Edwards after the jury returned with its decision.

The jury needed about two hours to unanimously decide that Payless was at fault. They also had lunch during that time. The panel then took about another 45 minutes to return the award for punitive damages.

The woman was sexually assaulted on Sept. 23, 1997, at the Payless store at 895 Main St., where she had worked for only two months.

The store didn't have any security cameras or an undercounter alarm, even though it had been robbed at gunpoint in February 1997 and another woman employee had been sexually assaulted the following May. In her lawsuit, the woman said that Payless had not told her about the previous crimes at the store.

During the trial before District Judge Russell Fagg this week, lawyers for Payless had argued that they couldn't have foreseen the assault.

Thomas Singer, a Billings attorney representing Payless, said afterward that the company was sorry for what had happened to the woman but thought the jury went too far in its award.

"The verdict is excessively high,'' Singer said. "It's far higher than any comparable case in Montana.''

He said the company had not yet decided whether it will appeal.

Although $1.5 million was certainly a lot, it could have been far worse for the shoe chain. After the jury had awarded the woman $500,000 in actual damages, Edwards had suggested to the jury that punitive damages should fall between $7 million and $8 million, equal to one day of the company's revenues.

"Maybe they'd have to suck it up at the corporate level,'' Edwards told the jury. ''Make it so they don't laugh on the way home.''

Edwards also said afterwards that Payless had offered his client $9,000 to settle the case. The offer increased as the trial date got closer, Edwards said, but never reached six figures.

Under Montana law, Judge Fagg still has to approve the jury's decision. He scheduled a hearing for Monday morning to hear arguments from both sides.

Luplow, the Wyoming man who attacked the woman, was sentenced last year to 23 years in prison for the crime. Prosecutors had alleged that on the day of the attack, Luplow also went on a spree of sex crimes, twice offering several young girls money for sex and then exposing himself when they refused.

Following his arrest for the Payless assault, victims of sex crimes in Billings dating back to 1996 identified Luplow as the man who either assaulted them or exposed himself to them. One of Luplow's earlier assaults had been at the Payless in the Heights.