Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts
A statute of limitations (“SOL”) is a legal requirement that puts strict time deadlines on when a civil or criminal action must be commenced. Statutes of limitations vary from state to state and from issue to issue. Civil actions, including claims made by child sexual abuse survivors, have very strict time deadlines, some as short as two years from the time of the abuse. Similarly, criminal SOL’s place deadlines governing the time period within which the Government can bring a criminal action against an alleged perpetrator. SOL’s are often referred to as “jurisdictional,” meaning that the failure to file a claim within the proscribed time generally means that a victim may have no legal recourse.
These deadlines are inflexible and do not depend upon the merits of the underlying claim. Institutional sexual abuse lawyer Andrew Shubin discusses the statute of limitations on lawsuits for the sexual abuse of children and why this window matters.
Why Do Child Sexual Abuse Cases Not Get Reported?
It is an unfortunate fact that many sexual abuse survivors are unable to file lawsuits because they are not ready to do so before the SOL deadline. For many well-documented and well-understood reasons, it can take years for survivors to come to terms with their abuse. According to data compiled by CHILD USA, only about a third of victims disclose their abuse during childhood and anywhere between 28-62% of victims never disclose abuse at all. Studies show that the average child sexual abuse reporting age is when the victim is 52 years old.
A variety of factors contribute to delayed disclosure: age, gender, cultural norms, power differentials, family dynamics, and more. Victims may feel fear, shame, guilt, or embarrassment about the abuse. The role of the abuser in the victim’s life –– whether a teacher, coach, doctor, priest, or peer –– greatly determines whether the victim feels comfortable enough to disclose the abuse. In addition, victims worry that they will not be believed and that institutions, which are often complicit in the abuse, will continue to betray them if they speak out. Our lawyer for victims of sexual abuse by a doctor, priest, professor, or other institutional member is here to help victims get justice and recover damages they deserve for their suffering.
Why is a Statute of Limitations Window Necessary for Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits?
Complaints from victims of abuse are often covered up by leaders of institutions so that if an allegation does come to light, it will be too late to file any suit. Institutions develop legal strategies to weaponize short SOL’s. An insidious tactic is to keep the facts and circumstances surrounding known abuse as quiet as possible so that abuse victims will not be “tipped off” to initiate legal claims while they are still able. Institutions like the church even developed parallel abuse complaint processing mechanisms which steered victims to internal committees in hopes they can keep abuse survivors involved in their internal process long enough that they are no longer able to avail themselves of the courts to vindicate their rights because the statute of limitations expired.
Because SOL’s prevent too many survivors from obtaining justice, many states have recently recognized the need to create a “look-back window” allowing people whose claims had already expired under past SOL’s to file sexual abuse claims. Several states have passed look-back window legislation, creating a specified length of time during which civil claims that would otherwise have been barred can now be brought against perpetrators and the institutions involved in the abuse. These windows recognize that previous SOL’s unjustly rewarded institutions and perpetrators for their roles in silencing victims and justly give victims a renewed opportunity to seek justice no matter their age.
Opposition to the Statute of Limitations Reform
When states expand SOL’s and create look-back windows, survivors often bring civil cases against institutions they believe were negligent in hiring sexual predators or knowingly covering up child sexual abuse. As a result, institutions have actively lobbied against SOL reform because they do not want to be exposed to new lawsuits or held liable for past abuse.
A 2019 report revealed that, over the past eight years, the Catholic Church spent $10.6 million in the northeastern United States to fight SOL reform legislation that help victims of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church seek justice. For example, in Pennsylvania, the Catholic Church spent $5,322,979 lobbying to fight against SOL reform while, in New York, the church spent $2,912,772 lobbying against the Child Victims Act.
Insurance companies have also heavily lobbied against SOL reform in an attempt to reduce exposure to liability claims and to avoid paying fees associated with new cases. General liability insurance typically covers legal defense and damages if the institution is held liable for property damage, injuries, or other forms of negligence.
The American Insurance Association, a trade group representing more than 320 insurance companies, spent $130,000 lobbying against reform including New York’s Child Victims Act. By lobbying against SOL’s reform, insurance companies put profit over the lives of victims who were traumatically abused due to an institution’s negligence.
Why SOL Windows Are Critical to Achieving Justice for Victims of Child Sexual Abuse
According to Attorney Andrew Shubin, “Institutions that enable and embolden child sexual predators remain complicity silent when they become aware of abuse in hopes of ‘running out’ the SOL on abuse claims. The institutional incentive is to cover up abuse and do nothing to reach out to the children they were obliged and failed to protect. It is hard to imagine the suffering that could be averted if institutions were forced to address abuse issues when they occurred rather than being incentivized to hide behind SOL’s which perversely reward them for covering up abuse for decades.” Attorney Shubin believes that: “Real statute of limitation reform must permit victims to prosecute civil and criminal claims when they are ready and able to do so. Enacting a SOL window will permit victims, no matter how old, to get the justice they deserve and will incentivize real institutional accountability, reform and transparency.”
The State of Child Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitation Reform in Pennsylvania
In 2018, a scathing grand jury report revealed that more than 1,000 children were sexually molested by over 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania since the 1940s. The report showed that senior church officials, including the archbishop of Washington, D.C., systematically covered up abuse until the statutes of limitations ran out. As a result of the purposeful cover-ups, only two of the 300+ predator priests were able to be held accountable.
A year after the grand jury report, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation to end any SOL for criminal child sexual abuse cases and to extend the SOL age limit for civil cases to age 55. Previously, victims only had until age 30 to bring a civil suit against their abuser, but the new law extends the time period for victims to pursue civil cases that were previously time-barred.
However, the new legislation does not include a look-back window that would give individuals a renewed chance to bring a civil claim over past cases of child sexual abuse. The 2018 grand jury, survivors and those that support them, and most state lawmakers, have advocated for a look-back window to allow victims, who were time-barred by previous SOL’s, to finally seek justice.
Despite overwhelming popular and bipartisan support, Pennsylvania State Senate Republican leadership, led by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and President Pro Tempore, Joe Scarnati, have thwarted legislative efforts to immediately enact SOL window reform. They have opted instead, to slow-track these critical measures by forcing reform advocates to pursue the slow, tedious path of seeking a constitutional amendment.
Through the constitutional amendment process, it could take over 2 years until a look-back window could be implemented because the legislation would need to be passed by two consecutive legislative sessions and be approved by voters before becoming law. The state legislature for 2019-2020 has already voted in favor of the amendment creating a two-year look-back window, but elections in 2020 are critical in determining whether the amendment will be approved in the 2021-2022 legislative session.
According to Attorney Andrew Shubin, “these powerful figures chose to protect the institutions responsible for abuse rather than victims, many of whom are their constituents.” Clearly, according to Attorney Shubin, “Senators Corman and Scarnati opened their doors to the churches and other institutions, many of which facilitated decades of horrific abuse in their congressional districts while slamming it shut in faces of the thousands of victims and their families. This bar to victims’ access to justice will protect abusers and the institutions that facilitated abuse from ever having to face accountability for their crimes against children.”
For this reason, among others, Attorney Andrew Shubin called upon “Pennsylvanians who support child sexual abuse victims and demand perpetrator accountability to vote Corman, Scarnati and other legislators who lack the courage to stand up against institutional abusers, out of office in November.”
States with Statutes of Limitations Reform on Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits
A new law went into effect in January 2020 that allows child sexual abuse survivors to file civil claims until the age of 40 or within five years of discovering their abuse, whichever is later. Under the new law, survivors also have a three-year look-back window which allows civil sexual abuse claims that have since passed the previous SOL’s to be filed.
New Jersey has extended the civil SOL for child sexual abuse to age 55 or seven years from discovery, whichever is later. The law also opens a two-year look-back window to allow lawsuits that were time-barred under the previous SOL. The window closes on November 30, 2021.
New York’s civil SOL for child sexual abuse now allows victims to file claims up until to age 55. The Child Victims Act, which originally opened up a one-year look-back window, has been extended by another year until August 14, 2021. This means that a civil child sexual abuse case which had expired under the old SOL’s can now be filed within this period. If you experienced sexual abuse as a child in NY, contact our lawyer for New York sexual abuse victims one-year window lawsuits for more information about seeking justice.
In 2019, North Carolina extended the civil SOL to age 28. The state also has a two-year look-back window that will allow cases to brought against perpetrators, other individuals, and institutions until December 31, 2021.
Vermont has eliminated the SOL for civil cases of child sexual abuse and revived all expired claims, allowing survivors to file lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions that failed to address and report past allegations.
A new bill passed in March 2020 extended the civil SOL to age 36 or four years from discovery of the abuse, whichever is later, giving survivors more time to bring civil cases against perpetrators and institutions.
States with Opportunities for Reform
According to CHILD USA, 16 states introduced bills in 2020 to eliminate civil SOL’s. States including Florida, Indiana, Maryland, and Massachusetts also introduced bills in their legislatures to open look-back windows.
Contact Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Lawyer Andrew Shubin Today
If you or a loved one experienced child sexual abuse at a prep school, hospital, church, or other institution, the time to act is now. No matter how strong your claim is, no matter how catastrophically you were injured, failing to file a claim within the appropriate time period may mean that you are forever barred from receiving justice and holding perpetrators accountable.
Attorney Andrew Shubin fights for victims who have been sexually abused by people in a position of power or authority to help them hold their abusers accountable. In addition to child sexual abuse, Andrew Shubin also can handle your title IX lawsuit or other discrimination or civil rights matter. Call our law firm today at (814) 826-3586 to schedule a free consultation about your claim.