By Brian Kabateck
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse gained important recognition and expanded rights on September 22, when President Biden signed new legislation into law.
The Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act lifts all restrictions on the timeframe for victims filing federal civil claims related to sex abuse crimes endured while a minor, including sexual abuse and exploitation, forced labor, and sex trafficking.
The bill passed the House by voice vote earlier the same week after being passed unanimously by the Senate last March.
Until now, a federal statute of limitations prevented adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse from suing their abuser and other liable parties. Victims had to file suit until they were 28 years old or until a decade after the injury or violation was discovered, whichever is later.
As sponsors of the bill asserted, this did not square with the psychology of trauma.
In a statement, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who initially introduced the legislation along with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), explained, “The science of trauma is clear: it often takes years for victims to come forward. Our bipartisan bill honors the basic notions of justice for survivors. By signing this legislation into law, we can finally help survivors have their day in court and a moment of healing—when they are ready.”
Although childhood sexual assault can have devastating effects on victims’ physical, mental, and emotional health, research demonstrates that it can take years or even decades for survivors to understand their abuse and come forward. According to one study of over 1000 survivors, the average age of disclosure is someone in their early 50s. Due to the prevalence of delayed disclosure, the statute of limitations severely impedes justice for survivors.
“The statute of limitations for sexual abuse offenses should never prohibit young survivors from getting the justice they deserve,” Senator Blackburn said. “The bipartisan effort to eliminate the civil child sexual abuse statute of limitations is a critical step to guarantee survivors their day in court.”
Abolishing the statute of limitations on civil suits for sexual abuse cases at the federal level is a significant bipartisan legislative achievement. But to understand the practical impact of the Act, it’s essential to know the distinction between civil and criminal suits, as well as federal and state cases.
This new law does not impact criminal suits for sex abuse, which have no federal statute of limitations. In a criminal case, the perpetrator is prosecuted by the state with the prospect of punishment, including incarceration, fines, probation, and other penalties. The victim rarely receives any direct benefit from a conviction, however.
A civil suit seeks justice for the victim through compensation which may include recovery of monetary losses due to medical bills or lost wages and damages for pain, suffering, and emotional distress.
While criminal charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, civil claims meet the burden of proof when a preponderance persuades a judge or jury of evidence that the claim is more likely valid than not true.
Another key difference is that criminal suits do not punish an institution or employer that failed to protect the child from an abuser affiliated with their organization. Civil cases allow plaintiffs to file lawsuits against an organization that may have enabled the abuse. (Recent high-profile examples include claims against the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church and the USA Women’s Gymnastics team suing the FBI for failing to stop ongoing abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar).
The new law empowers survivors bringing civil suits at the federal level. Still, it does not directly impact cases handled in state courts, where they are subject to state-level statutes of limitations. Numerous states, however, have recently enacted similar legislation.
In California, Assembly Bill 218, The California Child Victims Act, was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in October 2019. It extends the timeline for reporting childhood sexual abuse to age 40 (increased from age 26). It also extends five years (increased from three years) from the date the survivor discovers or reasonably should have discovered that an illness or psychological injury they experienced after age 18 resulted from sexual abuse as a minor.
In addition, AB 218 provided a 3-year window for survivors of childhood sexual assault to come forward no matter how old or when the abuse happened and whether the abuser is alive or dead. This window opened on January 1, 2020, and will close on December 31, 2022.
If you or a loved one has experienced sexual abuse, learning more about your legal rights is vital. Though nothing can undo the impact of childhood sexual assault, the experienced and compassionate attorneys at Kabateck LLP are dedicated to helping survivors achieve maximum compensation for their harm. Call KBK today to learn more about recovering damages and explore your options.