Statutes of Limitations for Civil Actions Based on Childhood Sexual Abuse


There has been persistent media coverage about childhood sexual abuse. In some cases, victims who were sexually abused years ago, have brought civil lawsuits against perpetrators and their affiliated organizations despite the fact that such actions would be time-barred under traditional tort statutes of limitations. For example, recent legislation in Hawaii has paved the way for abuse claims to be brought against the Hollywood director famous for the X-Men movie franchise, for activities that allegedly occurred in 1999 – it is too early to determine whether this claim is viable.

When claims of childhood sexual abuse began to emerge in the 1980s, the applicable statutes of limitations were the same as for tort claims – generally two to three years after the abuse, with tolling until the victim reached the age of majority and for severe mental incapacity. Subsequent case law and legislative developments have lengthened the limitations periods and delayed accrual of the limitations period until discovery (either discovery of the abuse or discovery of the causal connection between the abuse and the alleged injuries). Many of these legislative enactments are not retroactive, so it should not be assumed that the current law would apply, particularly in cases where the alleged abuse occurred several years prior to the assertion of the claim. Some states, like Illinois, frequently amend the limitations period applicable to childhood sexual abuse, which makes determining the applicable limitations period more difficult.

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