California Law Change helps Sex Abuse Survivors

(November 7, 2019) Survivors of childhood sexual abuse in California no longer need to suffer in silence. They can finally have their voices heard. Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 218 into law October 13, 2019. It goes into effect on January 1, 2020.

No Age Limit for Sex Abuse Survivors (for Limited Period)

The new law provides a three-year window for survivors to file a lawsuit, regardless of when the abuse occurred, and regardless of the survivor’s current age. The law also revises the current statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims.

The State of California previously allowed victims to file childhood sex abuse claims only if those survivors were under the age of 26 years old. AB 218 extends that previous limitations period to age 40 and provides a five year “discovery rule” provisions for a period after the survivor draws a connection between the abuse and current psychological injuries. AB 218 holds that whatever comes later applies.

Additionally, AB 218 provides a three (3) year statutory “look-back window” for currently barred claims.  In other words, this window would allow any claims of childhood sexual abuse, regardless of their current SOL, to be filed within three years from the effective date of the statute.  Victims over age 40 have additional, specific requirements, but are still eligible to be included in this look back window. Therefore, beginning on January 1, 2020, every victim of childhood sexual abuse, regardless of age, has the potential pursue a claim.

Courts will also be able to triple the damages awarded to a victim if it is found that the authorities involved attempted a cover-up.

Many victims of sexual abuse do not realize the extent of their abuse or even acknowledge their experience until many decades after the abuse occurred; therefore, AB 218 gives survivors a chance to pursue a civil action claim  even for those who may have previously thought their chance at justice had long since passed.

The Bill’s Sponsor, Lorena Gonzalez

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) authored the bill. When it passed, she tweeted: “I just can’t even stop crying. This is so unbelievable.”

Ms. Gonzalez had introduced a similar bill last year, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown slammed the door on survivors. He infamously said at the time:  “There comes a time when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits.”

Now it is sexual abuse survivors who have a chance to be, in Mr. Brown’s own words, “secure” – secure in the knowledge that their chance at justice has finally come.  Better late than never for all long-suffering survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Groups that Opposed the Bill

Several groups, including the California Association of Joint Powers Authorities and the Schools Excess Liability Fund (SELF), opposed the bill. They argued that it would put “every public agency in the position of having to defend itself against decades-old claims when witnesses may be scarce, memories may have faded, or there has been a turnover in staff.”

Blame Attorneys Card

Many of those groups opposing survivor’s rights played the ever-popular “blame the attorneys” card.

“This will surely result in funding intended to educate students and serve communities to instead be spent on increased legal costs, including payments to attorneys, whether or not the claim is valid,” read call to action letter published by SELF earlier this year.

SELF and other naysayers ignore the fact that virtually all plaintiffs’ attorneys who represent sexual abuse victims do so on a contingency fee basis. That means that those survivors’ attorneys will only file a case if there is sufficient evidence to support one. To file a weak or “frivolous” case risks their losing their reputations as well as their livelihoods, because plaintiffs’ attorneys working on contingency fees must pay to pursue any litigation they feel worth pursuing.

USC Sex Abuse Victims also Acknowledged

Earlier in October 2019, Gov. Newsom also approved Assembly Bill 1510. That bill gives victims who allege sexual abuse by former USC campus gynecologist George Tyndall an extra year to file lawsuits. Nearly 400 women have made allegations against Tyndall during this 27 years at the university, according to a yearlong Los Angeles Times investigation.

The governor said, “Of all the bills I have carried, I’ve never had the consistent, heart-wrenching involvement from interested Californians as I have with #AB218, our bill to extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.”

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