Friday, June 20, 2014

Statute of Limitations Bill Passes Unanimously in House and Senate

Statute of Limitations Bill Passes Unanimously in House and Senate
Advocates and Church Leaders Arrive at Compromise


June 19, 2012, BOSTON, MA – Behind-the-scenes diplomacy over the past several months among legislators, legal experts, child advocates and Church officials has resulted in a bill that will finally provide civil relief for victims of child sexual abuse who were previously time-barred by law from filing charges against their alleged abusers. The bill moved quickly through the Judiciary Committee, championed by Senator William Brownsberger, recently appointed Senate Co-Chair of the Committee. House sponsor Representative John Lawn shepherded it through to the House where it was passed unanimously on Thursday. Late today, the Senate also confirmed its unanimous support. The bill, which includes an emergency provision, will go into immediate effect upon Governor Patrick’s signing and he is expected to do so.

Any child 18 or younger who is abused after the law goes into effect will now have up to the age of 53 to file civil charges against their alleged abuser and/or against a supervisor and/or the employer of that supervisor.  Previously a victim only had up to 3 years past their 18th birthday to file civil charges or until 3 years after they came to understand the harm caused by the abuse. Under the new law, that limited “discovery period” is extended to 7 years. Also, the previous requirement that a survivor give a two-year notice of intent to file charges under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act has been eliminated, but only for claims of sexual abuse.

A significant feature of the proposed new law is its retroactivity for survivors. This means that anyone who was sexually abused in the past and who was time-barred under the old law from filing civil charges against their alleged abuser will now have until the age of 53 to do so.

The new law, however, would not be retroactive for institutions and their supervisors.  This means that survivors who believe their past abuse was due to the actions or inactions of an organization and/or a supervisor of that organization, may not file civil charges if they were time-barred under the old law.  Only abuse by institutions and supervisors that occurs after the new law goes into effect would be subject to the age 53 provision.

“We are fully aware of the bill’s limitations regarding survivors age 53 or older, as well as the inability of some to file civil charges against institutions which may have been complicit in allowing child sexual abuse to occur under their watch,”, said Jetta Bernier, director of MassKids, a child advocacy organization that has been involved in the SOL reform fight for several years.  “Negotiators were faced with an all-or-nothing choice and so chose to do what was currently possible for the greatest numbers of survivors.  We simply could no longer accept the status quo and the protections it provided abusers while disregarding the rights of survivors and potential future child victims,” she said.  The group says it is committed to fight for additional reforms and prevention policies in the next legislative session.

Rosanne Sliney, a survivor of child sexual abuse, who was time-barred under the old law from suing the uncle who abused her from age 5 to 14, expressed the sentiment of many abuse victims.  “With this long overdue move, we have finally succeeded in wresting power away from abusers who were largely protected under the old law. Victims now have the power they need to seek justice in the courts, to heal, and to shield more children from sexual abuse.”

Marci Hamilton, constitutional law scholar and the nation’s foremost legal expert on Statute of Limitations stated: "This law is a good development for Massachusetts survivors.  The retroactive age extension to age 53 is innovative and worthy of other states' attention.”  However, she raised concerns that the law would still shield the four Massachusetts Dioceses of Boston, Fall River, Springfield and Worcester from potential new suits brought against them by some victims of clergy sexual abuse. “The failure to include institutions under the retroactive provision shows that Catholic bishops' continue to exert their power in an effort to avoid justice.  Still, the retroactive extension of the discovery rule to 7 years beyond discovery for all defendants is an improvement over existing law."

Bills to reform civil and criminal SOLs were introduced in numerous states in 2014, including California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. MassKids and other advocates succeeded in 2009 in extending the state’s criminal SOL.  Before then a victim had only up to 15 years past their 16th birthday or by age 31 to file criminal charges against their abuser. Now they have until age 43.

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How do the new and old SOL laws compare?


NEW LAW: Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse - age 53
For abuse occurring from this date on, a victim can bring suit against their abuser and the supervisor or employer of the abuser, any time before their 53rd birthday.

For abuse that occurred prior to passage of the new law, a victim who was barred under the old law can now bring suit against their abuser, any time before their 53rd birthday. They are still restricted from bringing suit against the supervisor or employer of the abuser.

OLD LAW: Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse - age 18
A victim of child sexual abuse upon reaching the age of 18 could file suit against their abuser and supervisor or employer of the abuser.

* * *

NEW LAW: Discovery Rule - 7 years
A victim of child sexual abuse now has 7 years after they reach their 18th birthday, or 7 years from the time they discover or reasonably should have discovered the harm caused by the abuse, to file a complaint.

There is NO age limit to the 7 year discovery rule, e.g. a victim abused at age 15 who does not discover the harm done until they are significantly older may still file a complaint if it is filed within 7 years after they discover the harm done or before their 53rd birthday, whichever is LATER.

The 7 Year Discovery Rule is also retroactive for supervisors and employers, e.g. a victim of child sexual abuse who is 40 years old and discovers at that time the harm done by the abuse would have until age 47 to file a complaint against the abuser’s supervisor or employer. The victim would have until age 53 to sue their abuser as the time limit is the later of the two ages that is, age 53 or 47 years – 7 years from discovery.)

OLD LAW: Discovery Rule - 3 years
A victim of child sexual abuse had 3 years after their 18th birthday, or 3 years from the time they discovered or should have discovered the harm caused by the abuse, to file a complaint. There was no retroactive provision for this Discovery Rule.

* * *

NEW LAW: MA Tort Claims for child sexual abuse claims only
A written notice of intent to file a complaint against an abuser, supervisor or employer is no longer required.

OLD LAW: MA Tort Claims- 2 year notice & 3 Year SOL
There was a required 2-year written notice of intent to file a complaint for suits brought against towns, cities, governments, municipalities and a 3-year SOL.