Measure Would Also Revive Cases Dismissed As a Result of Statute of Limitations, Would Expand Category of Liable Individuals in Cases of Abuse
TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senators Joseph F. Vitale and Nicholas P. Scutari which would eliminate the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse to sue their abusers, and would allow for the revival of cases which were dismissed because the state of limitations had lapsed, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday by a vote of 9-0.
“Sexual predators shouldn’t be able to hide behind the ambiguity and vagueness of the law to avoid being held accountable for their actions,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex. “This bill would remove some of the limitations that have prohibited the victims of sexual abuse in the past from realizing a small measure of justice. It would allow sexual abuse cases to be considered on the merits of the allegations, not the timeline of events.”
“Considering that the long-term psychological effects of sexual abuse can take years to manifest, and can leave the victims of abuse devastated, eliminating the statute of limitations for civil action on abuse cases makes sense,” said Senator Scutari, D-Union, Somerset and Middlesex. “This bill is about giving due deference to the victims of sexual abuse and the mental healing it sometimes requires for them to confront their victimizers in a court of law. It would make sure that an objective consideration of the facts is the only criteria considered in these types of cases.”
The bill, S-2405, would remove the statute of limitations in civil actions for sexual abuse in order to give victims who are faced with lasting mental and psychological anguish the ability to sue their abuser once they have come to terms with the effects of their abuse. By eliminating the statute of limitations for civil action in sex abuse cases, the bill would remove existing ambiguity in current law to ensure that sexual predators are unable to hide behind a statute of limitations in order to avoid being held liable for their crimes.
“In 2006, when we removed the charitable immunity shields which protected the most egregious sexual predators from prosecution, we did so because we recognized that for far too long, people have taken advantage of the letter of the law to avoid the intent of the law,” said Senator Vitale. “This bill clarifies that in cases of sexual abuse, the veracity of the allegations is the only thing that matters. Rather than focus on when a case is brought forward, we ought to be focusing on whether or not the abuse took place.”
Under current law, the statute of limitations is not absolute. Abuse victims have two years to file a civil suit from the date that they discover the causal relationship between their injuries and the sexual abuse. The two-year time period may be paused because of the “plaintiff’s mental state, duress by the defendant, or any other equitable grounds.”
The ambiguous nature of these provisions have led to complex decisions requiring the trial court to make a ruling on the timing of a psychological or mental illness and on the mental condition of the plaintiff, as opposed to on the merits of the case. The blanket elimination of the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases would not only remove this ambiguity and allow for consistent determinations, but would also spare the victim from having to reveal very personal and sensitive information to the court, which might be protected by the confidentiality and privacy standards contained in the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).
“The victims of sexual abuse shouldn’t have to give up their rights of privacy and doctor-patient confidentiality to see that justice is done,” said Senator Scutari. “However, under current law, many of these victims have the burden of proving when they made the connection between psychological and mental illness and their own sexual abuse in order to allow a case to proceed. This bill would preserve a sexual abuse victim’s medical privacy while allowing them the chance to seek justice.”
The bill would also allow cases which have been dismissed due to the lapsing of the statute of limitations to be revived. It would also expand the category of persons who would be liable for sexual abuse to include any person “with supervisory or disciplinary power of any nature or capacity over the victim.” Under current state law, only a parent, guardian or other person standing in loco parentis with the household who knowingly permits or acquiesces in sexual abuse by any other person is liable for sexual abuse. Under the bill, any person who has a position of authority over a victim and either commits sexual abuse or does nothing to stop a known-case of abuse would be liable for civil damages.
“By simplifying sexual abuse cases – eliminating the statute of limitations, and expanding the category of people subject to civil liability – we can focus on the victims and their allegations, rather than get bogged down in judicial red tape,” said Senator Scutari. “Five other states have abolished the statute of limitations in regards to sexual abuse cases because they have recognized the seriousness and lifelong consequences that abuse carries. It’s time for New Jersey to join the growing trend to make sure we put victims’ rights ahead of civil shields for sexual predators.”
“This is a matter of fairness for the victims of sexual abuse who have seen cases thrown out because the statute of limitations has lapsed,” said Senator Vitale. “While a statute of limitations may make sense in certain civil cases, when it comes to the difficulty that victims endure to speak about and seek justice for sexual abuse, they should be given a little more leeway. This bill makes sure that we’re treating the victims of sexual abuse with the compassion and understanding necessary to see that true justice is served.”
The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for review before going to the full Senate for consideration.