Over 400 lawsuits were filed in the wake of the New York Child Victims Act, which carved out a one-year period during which any adult survivors of child sexual abuse may sue an abuser or a negligent institution, no matter when the abuse took place. The law was signed on February 14, 2019, and the one-year period began August 14, 2019. These 400 lawsuits were all filed in one day. One hundred and sixty-nine cases were filed within New York City, while 258 cases were filed elsewhere in the state, according to the New York Unified Court System.
Statute of limitations are in place in order to ensure that civil and criminal matters are brought forth in a timely manner. By setting a time period during which a claim may be brought, lawmakers are attempting to ensure that the court will still have adequate access to necessary evidence in order to make a full and fair ruling on a claim. Generally, if a particular claim is brought outside of the statute of limitations it will be barred; the court will not rule on the merits of the claim.
However, many circumstances may make enforcement of a statute of limitations unfair. For example, many states require that a personal injury claim be filed within two years from when the injury occurred. Yet there are many cases in which a victim wouldn’t even be aware that an injury had happened–for example, a surgical patient may not be aware of the fact that a sponge was left inside her body until years later when she begins to experience pain or other symptoms. In these cases, the law generally recognizes that there are instances in which an exception to the statute of limitations should be made. In many states, the statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims allows time for a victim to “discover” a harm, or makes an explicit exception for when a foreign item was left in a body during surgery.
The New York Legislature is attempting to extend this same rationale to victims of sex abuse. Lawmakers stated that the idea behind the law is that many victims of child sexual abuse keep it a secret for years, well beyond the previous statute of limitations, out of shame and fear.
The law not only permits victims to file suit against the perpetrators of sexual abuse but also negligent institutions. Many expect the lawsuits to involve the Catholic church. A representative for the Archdiocese of New York stated that the institution “has been anticipating the filing of lawsuits since the Child Victim’s Act passed earlier this year,” but attempted to convince victims to eschew the new law in favor of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, an initiative launched by the NY Archdiocese to privately compensate to victim-survivors of abuse by priests or deacons. However, it appears that many will choose to file under the new law. One law firm told CNN that it has 1,200 clients prepared to file, only 10 of which filed recently.
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