SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah woman who was raped by an instructor while training to become a truck driver is suing the company, claiming her assault was enabled by lax hiring practices and minimal oversight.
In a lawsuit, the former trainee alleges the company took "deliberate steps to exacerbate her trauma with criticism and disbelief" after the 2017 attack.
The civil suit filed Monday accuses trucking company C.R. England of harassing the woman after her rape, demanding that she either finish her training or repay the full amount of her driving school tuition. The company had received prior complaints from other women against instructor Thorpe Steele, who is now serving a prison sentence for her assault, the lawsuit says.
The trucking business disputes the allegations. Co-owner TJ England told KSL Tuesday that it had not received earlier complaints and employees contacted the woman to check on her, not to harass her.
"We believe our team responded very admirably and worked very, very hard to make sure she was safe and comfortable," England said. "We don't tolerate any type of sexual harassment or this type of behavior, whatsoever."
The woman enrolled in C.R. England's trucking school in the summer of 2017, in part because of the company's efforts to recruit women, the suit says. It refers to her as Jane Doe and notes she lives in Juab County.
"She trusted C.R. England," the lawsuit states. "Jane (Doe) learned quickly that her trust was misplaced."
Steele, 55, was found guilty of rape and forcible sodomy, both first-degree felonies, and was sentenced in May to spend at least five years in prison.
The attack occurred July 3, 2017, just hours after the two met, according to court documents. Steele was showing the victim the inside of his truck at the school's West Valley address when he told her he had several knives inside the truck and then violently assaulted her, saying, "What happens in the truck stays in the truck."
When they entered the sleeping area of the truck, Steele touched the woman inappropriately and replied "no is not an option" when she told him no. He pinned her down, raped her and then forced her to perform a sex act, biting her when she resisted him physically, court records show.
She escaped when Steele left to take a shower at the facility, according to the lawsuit, and told some C.R. England employees in the building what happened.
According to the lawsuit, management brought the victim to a small room with no windows and left her there alone, "crying on the floor in the fetal position." They asked her to write down what happened before calling the police, the victim says.
England, the company's co-owner, said he believes human resources called police immediately and spoke with her but did not ask for a written statement.
A criminal background check revealed no criminal history for Thorpe at the time of hiring, according to England, and Thorpe lost his job following an internal company probe before he was criminally charged.
"Our team worked really hard to help with the criminal trial to get this guy convicted," England said.
On Tuesday, the company's employees were in a yearly sexual harassment training that reviews the company's zero-tolerance policy, England said. And while the business is constantly re-evaluating its policies, the rape case has not changed how it conducts trainings, he said.
Attorneys for the woman argue that the company did not let her leave the room following the assault, but Steele was allowed to leave the crime scene before police arrived on the scene. Days later, the woman alleges, a C.R. England human resources employee accused her of fabricating the incident to get out of paying tuition and avoid her work obligation.
The company's "campaign of harassment" resulted in the woman signing a release of claims and liability against C.R. England days after the attack when she was still traumatized and in shock, a document her attorneys say is one-sided and wasn't clearly explained to her.
Steele requested female trainees and C.R. England knew about his history of sexual assault, the suit claims.
The history includes the assault of a co-worker while Steele was working as a school bus driver in Texas, a report sustained in an investigation by the school district, according to the lawsuit. Steele had previously asked another female trainee to give him massages, the suit says, and threatened to "strand her alone out in the middle of nowhere" if she didn't comply.
Steele was sentenced in May to at least five years and up to life in prison on each conviction. In letters to the judge ahead of his sentencing, the trainee's wife said her spouse is no longer bubbly but "broken to the core" and suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Her once-close relationship with her stepdaughter has become more distant, and the family has moved three times and has alarms on windows and doors because she no longer feels safe, the letters say.
The woman seeks more than $300,000 in damages to be determined at trial.