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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Statutes of Limitation in Clergy Abuse Cases: An Update

Religion Clause reported yesterday that the Catholic diocese of Wilmington declared Chapter 11.  This apparently delays a clergy sex abuse case that was going to begin.  The case apparently originated from Delaware’s 2007 law, 10 Del. Code Ann. § 8145, which gave sexual abuse victims a 2-year window to file suit, regardless of when the abuse happened or if the statute of limitations had run.  I think it’s the most powerful law of its kind; California passed a similar law that gave victims a 1-year window in 2003.

And while we’re at it, here is a really remarkable case from the Vermont Supreme Court last week on the subject.  The plaintiff was 47 year old James Turner who brought suit in 2004 for being sexually abused as a child in 1977.  Vermont too has a special statute of limitations period for child sex abuse cases, but it’s generally only six years from the date of the abuse.  (Vermont has considered legislation like Delaware’s and California’s that would create a window to bring expired claims -- it has been unsuccessful so far, although it was introduced in the state legislature again earlier this year.) 

All this is to say then that Turner faced this serious statute of limitations problem.  But it did not defeat him.  Discussion after the jump.

So the discovery rule generally says that the statute of limitations runs from the time the injury is discovered (or reasonably should have been discovered).  Turner was aware of the abuse in 1977 and he discussed it with his family in 1981.  But if the statute began to run in 1981, it clearly would have expired by 1988 (let alone 2004).  So Turner’s argument became this -- I may have been aware of some of my injuries and of the potential liability of the priest in 1977, but I was unaware of their full extent and of the potential liability of the diocese until 1998.

In the trial court, the defendant moves for judgment as a matter of law on the statute of limitations issue.  The trial court denies it.  But the jury then holds for the defendant, concluding that the statute of limitations actually did run.  The trial court then grants the plaintiff’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, concluding that there was no evidence that the plaintiff knew or should have known of the potential liability of the diocese by 1998: “Knowing a priest breached a duty does not, per se, tip off the reasonable person that the diocese had also breached a duty.” 

Here the Vermont Supreme Court reverses, holding that the statute of limitations issue properly belonged to the jury -- i.e., that judgment as a matter of law was inappropriate both for the plaintiff and defendant. 

When you read the case, you would think that the defendant had just won.  (Remember the jury found that the statute of limitations had run.)  But the Court goes to say that there was a problem with the jury.  One of the jurors, it turns out, was a Catholic woman who attended church in the diocese and who was familiar with the sex abuse lawsuits against the diocese.  She had been allowed on the jury over the plaintiff’s challenge for cause.  The Court holds that she should have been excluded, citing along the way two Alabama cases from 1861 and 1916, a Nebraska case from 1883, a Delaware case from 1897, and a North Carolina case from 1924.

Final result: A new trial for the plaintiff.  But I think it’s hard to see this case as anything other than a response to the underlying equities of the dispute.

Posted by Chris Lund on October 20, 2009 at 11:21 PM | Permalink


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