Limitations eased on abuse lawsuits

Published 10:38 pm Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By Jillian Quattlebaum

Capital News Service

Beginning July 1, sexually abused children will have up to 20 years after their 18th birthday to file a sexual abuse claim in civil court.

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Currently, such children have only two years after reaching 18 to seek lawsuits against their abusers. They will get more time under Senate Bill 1145 and House Bill 1476, which Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed into law.

“Children who are abused often are unable to come to grips with the abuse until later in life, as adults,” said Sen. Frederick Quayle, R-Suffolk. He sponsored SB 1145.

Initially, Quayle’s bill called for extending the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases to 25 years after a child reaches 18. The Senate amended the bill to make it a 20-year limitations period.

Some people believe that is still too long.

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, said the conference supported an eight-year limitations period proposed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax.

“In looking at what other states do in the same types of cases, our testimony was that it would be reasonable to extend Virginia’s current limitations period,” Caruso said. “But to extend it to 25 years … would be much longer than the vast majority of other states have.”

Caruso said his research showed that most states have a statute of limitations of two to five years. He said the Senate’s 20-year limitations period went too far.

“We felt that was outside the mainstream of what other states do, and also it becomes contrary to the very good reasons for having the statute of limitations,” Caruso said.

Many members of the House of Delegates felt the same way.

HB 1476, introduced by Delegate David Albo, R-Springfield, originally called for a 25-year statute of limitations on claims of childhood sexual abuse, just as Quayle’s proposal did. But the House amended Albo’s bill and made the limitations period eight years.

However, the Senate later amended HB 1476 to create a 20-year statute of limitations. Ultimately, the House joined the Senate in settling on that length of time.

Caruso said having a long statute of limitations makes it difficult to locate witnesses and records. He added that witnesses may die or their memories may fade.

In child sexual abuse cases, it is not always the perpetrator who is sued by a plaintiff, Caruso noted. He said third parties, such as schools, non-profit organizations, recreational leagues and churches, can be sued as well.

“When you’re looking at the limitations period, there has to be something that really takes into consideration a balancing of many different interests,” Caruso said.

Quayle said plaintiffs who take advantage of the extended statute of limitations will be treated the same as other plaintiffs in civil court.

“The only potential misuse would be someone claiming to have been abused when they were not,” Quayle said. “And they would be put to the same evidentiary tests that every plaintiff faces.”

Quayle said the new law is not designed to seek criminal justice, because there is no criminal statute of limitations for abuse.

“It provides another opportunity for children who have been abused to seek closure,” he said.

Caruso agreed that it is important to take victims’ feelings into consideration.

“It’s extremely important that we be fair and just and compassionate toward victims,” Caruso said. “That’s of paramount importance, and I think they were emphasizing that throughout the debate.”