For our readers who are involved in insuring public and private entities against sexual abuse claims, you may be interested to know that legislation to reform the civil and criminal statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims was recently introduced in the California State Senate by Senator Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach. The two legislative bills seek to prohibit childhood sex offenders from leveraging the statute of limitations to escape civil damages or criminal prosecution.
One of the new bills, SB 924, proposes to reform the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits by increasing the age for when victims of sexual abuse can sue private and public organizations that they allege failed to protect them from sexual abuse offenders. The bill would raise the age deadline from 26 to 40 years old. The bill would also increase the length of time for a person to file suit after he or she claims to have discovered that the molestation caused them psychological harm. Currently, a suit can be filed within three years of such a realization, even after the age-related statute of limitations is already expired. SB 924 would increase this standard to five years.
Additionally, the bill more specifically defines the term “discovery” than does current law, identifying it as the time in which a physician, psychologist or clinical psychologist first informs the victim of the link between their adult psychological injuries and the childhood sexual abuse.
The other bill, SB 926, would raise the age at which an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse can seek criminal prosecution against his or her offender from 28 to 40 years old. The bill would affect sex crimes against children including lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, and other offenses.
In an attempt to avoid the stumbling blocks of SB 131 – a similar bill that was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown last fall – SB 924 will apply to both public and private entities and both bills will be applied prospectively on January 1, 2015, if passed and signed into law. However, there are some details that still need to be finalized. For one, it is uncertain as to whether the extension of time from three to five years which a victim has to file suit under SB 924 will be applied only to future discoveries of harm, or also to victims who already have been informed (but where the current three-year limitations period has not expired). Additionally, opponents criticize that SB 924 requires a mental health specialist’s opinion to trigger the date of discovery of harm. Bill opponents argue that victims often know that they have been harmed before they receive an opinion from a mental health specialist. Finally, despite the provision that the bills will be applied prospectively, opponents continue to raise the specter of retroactive application to invalidate the previous statute of limitations and concomitant due process issues.
We will monitor these bills as they work their way through the legislature and provide follow up reports.