Monday, November 9, 2009
Court of Appeal Clarifies Time Limit for Childhood Molestation Claims
Legislation Reviving Old Claims Slammed Door Shut After 2003, Panel Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Legislation creating a one-year period in which child abuse victims could sue defendants who negligently failed to prevent the abuse from occurring, without regard to the prior statute of limitations, did not extend the time in which such persons could sue once the yearlong period expired, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Friday.
The decision, by Div. Eight, holds that certain suits filed after 2003—those against defendants alleged to have failed to take reasonable steps after being placed on notice of molestation accusations against employees or others within their control—are barred if the limitations period expired on those claims before they were filed.
The ruling touches on an issue now before the state Supreme Court in two other cases—the interpretation of the 2002 amendments to Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340.1(c).
At one time, no suit based on childhood molestation could be filed after the victim turned 19 years old, but those limits were extended under a series of amendments enacted in and after 1994. Under the 1998 amendment, claims based on childhood sexual abuse that were filed after Jan. 1, 1999, or were pending on that date, were subject to the following time limits:
•An alleged molester could not be sued more than three years after the plaintiff discovered that he had been injured as a result of the molestation, or after the plaintiff’s 26th birthday, whichever was later;
•Any other party whose acts or omissions were an alleged legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries could not be sued more than three years after discovery, or after the plaintiff’s 26th birthday, whichever was earlier.
In 2002, however, lawmakers created Sec. 340.1(b)(2). The provision states that if the non-molester defendant “knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any unlawful sexual conduct by an employee, volunteer, representative, or agent, and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by that person,” the deadline is the same as against a molester defendant.
In addition, with respect to the latter group of defendants, there was no time limitation at all if the action was filed during the year 2003.
Friday’s ruling came on an appeal by 15 plaintiffs who had sued the Roman Catholic dioceses of San Diego, San Bernardino and Monterey. The coordinated cases were the subject of an omnibus demurrer, which was sustained by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias.
Each of the plaintiffs filed suit between 2004 and the end of 2007, claiming to have been molested by a member of the clergy between 1957 and the late 1980s, and alleging recent discovery of psychological injury related to the sexual abuse. Elias ruled that the pre-1994 statute barred the claim, and that no exception applied because they missed the one-year revival window.
The plaintiffs contended that under the 2002 amendment, the only consequence of missing the revival window was that they were subject to the 1998 legislation, under which, they asserted, their claims were timely because they had discovered the relationship between their mental health problems and the molestation less than three years before filing suit, even though they were over 26 years old.
In concluding that the trial judge was correct, Acting Presiding Justice Laurence Rubin cited Hightower v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 759. The court held there that the claim of a plaintiff who turned 19 in 1977 and filed suit in 2004, alleging he did not discover the cause of his difficulties until 2003, was time-barred.
Rubin rejected the contention that by reenacting Sec. 340.1(u) in 2002, the Legislature was indicating an intent to apply the 1998 legislation to plaintiffs who filed suit after 2003.
The argument was flawed, the jurist explained, because the sole purpose of subdivision (u)—which declares that the 1998 legislation “shall apply to any action commenced on or after January 1, 1999, and to any action filed prior to January 1, 1999, and still pending on that date, including any action or causes of action which would have been barred by the laws in effect prior to January 1, 1999” and that “[n]othing in this subdivision is intended to revive actions or causes of action as to which there has been a final adjudication prior to January 1, 1999”—was to clarify that the 1998 amendments were not retroactive.
“If plaintiffs are correct, then even though the Legislature expressly revived all lapsed subdivision (b)(2) claims for one year pursuant to subdivision (c), it also chose to silently revive a limited subcategory of those claims—where plaintiffs were over 26 but had not yet discovered the link between the molestation and their adulthood emotional harm—by way of reenacting a three-year-old provision that was designed to clarify the prospective reach of the 1998 amendments that set an age 26 limit on claims against all nonabuser entities,” Rubin wrote. “If so, the Legislature chose a circuitous path to achieve that result, requiring a resort to methods of legislative interpretation that are almost cryptographic. Certainly the plain language of these very different subdivisions does not show such intent. Neither does the legislative history.”
The case was argued on appeal by Devin M. Storey of San Diego’s Zalkin & Zimmer for the plaintiffs, by Lee Potts of the Los Angeles firm Hennigan, Bennett & Dohrman for the defendants, and by Stockton lawyer Paul Balestracci for the Bishop of Stockton as amicus.
The case is Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego, B209557.
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