Friday, April 29, 2005
Clergy Abuse Plaintiffs May Seek Punitive Damages, C.A. Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse by members of the clergy, entitled to sue under a law reviving time-barred claims, may seek punitive damages, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Ruling as part of a coordination proceeding involving about 1,000 plaintiffs, Div. Eight rejected the argument that allowing punitive damages for claims brought after the original statute of limitations period has expired violates the ex post facto clauses of the state and federal constitutions.
The specific case ruled on yesterday was that of Bob Thatcher, who two weeks ago was awarded $875,000 in compensatory damages and an equal sum in punitive damages for molestation he suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest in the Bay Area city of Antioch in 1980 and 1981.
Jurors found that the Diocese of Oakland failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the abuse. While such claims must normally be brought no later than the plaintiff’s 26th birthday, Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340.1 gave victims above that age one year, beginning Jan. 1, 2003, to bring suit.
Thatcher sued in April 2003. In April 2004, Alameda Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw, who oversees the clergy cases from the Bay Area, rejected the diocese’s contention that it could not be held liable for punitive damages in a Sec. 340.1 case.
The diocese sought a writ of mandate overturning Sabraw’s ruling. The Div. Eight panel—this district’s Court of Appeal has been designated to hear all appeals in the clergy cases, regardless of where they are brought—issued an order to show cause but declined to delay the trial.
Justice Laurence Rubin, writing yesterday for the panel, said the ex post facto clauses apply only to criminal prosecutions, not to tort actions.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that criminal statutes of limitations may not be revived, “[i]t is equally well settled that legislation reviving the statute of limitations on civil law claims does not violate constitutional principles,” the justice wrote.
Both an earlier version of Sec. 340.1 and a similar South Dakota law have been upheld, Rubin noted.
The justice distinguished Landgraf v. USI Film Products (1994) 511 U.S. 244, in which the Supreme Court held that Congress did not intend legislation allowing punitive damages to be recovered in job discrimination suits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be applied to pending cases.
The high court, Rubin acknowledged, questioned whether such retroactive application would be constitutionally permissible, given the purpose of punitive damages and the similarity of that remedy to criminal sanctions.
But Landgraf does not apply to Thatcher’s case, Rubin said, because the Supreme Court never reached the ex post facto issue; the rules governing retroactive application of laws that affect statutory rights and remedies are different from those that implicate common law causes of action; and Landgraf did not involve the well-settled principle that civil statutes of limitations can be revived.
Attorneys on appeal were Richard S. Diestel and Alison M. Crane of Bledsoe, Cathcart, Diestel & Pederson; Stephen A. McFeely of Foley & Lardner; and stina J. Imre and Douglas J. Collodel of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold for the diocese and Richard J. Simons of Furtado, Jaspovice & Simons for Thatcher.
The case is Roman Catholic Bishop of Oakland v. Superior Court (Thatcher), B179053.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company