Statutes of Limitation
Statutes of Limitations are intertwined with the filing of civil lawsuits (Criminal statutes of limitations exist — but S.534 seems to impact only civil statute of limitations). With respect to injury claims, lawsuits are commonly filed at the county level within each state — addressed by County District Courts (names vary). It is possible to file an injury lawsuit in Federal Court, but this is uncommon and procedurally difficult. Nonetheless, in some circumstances Federal Court is the only possible venue for the filing of an injury lawsuit (i.e., when the injury arose out of country, or one or more defendant is a governmental organization).
Over the past 20 years, respective state legislatures have been modifying civil statutes of limitation related to child sexual abuse cases in response to a public policy shift acknowledging the fact that abuse victims need more time within which to recognize damages stemming from past abuse and file suit. Connecticut, for example, has a ‘30 Year Statute’; a sexual abuse victim must file a lawsuit within thirty years of reaching majority (prior to his or her 48th birthday). In California, a sexual abuse victim must file a lawsuit within eight years of reaching majority (an ‘8 Year Statute’). In Texas, a sexual abuse victim must file a lawsuit within fifteen years of reaching majority (a ‘15 Year Statute’). In 2010, the state of Florida lifted its civil statute of limitation altogether.
In sum, states have been responsive. This is not surprising because state courts provide the appropriate venue for the bulk of abuse litigation.
New Legislation – Analysis
The new legislation is best understood through the lens of circumstances occurring within USA Gymnastics. Some gymnasts were victimized out of country. Some complain that they cannot have ‘their day in court’ because the only venue available to them is Federal Court, or that one of the defendants is a governmental entity (NGB or Michigan State University), and the federal statute of limitations is very limited: federal statues have not seen significant change in response to public opinion, as the Federal Court is a common venue for such a suit.
Before the new legislation, the statute of limitations for personal injury was 10 years from occurrence of the injury; and, in the case of a minor, a tolling period of three years. In other words, in Federal Court, a victim must file suit within ten years of the event or three years of reaching majority (a ‘3 Year Statute’) – whichever is longer. In many cases involving Gymnastics, the civil statute of limitations would have run.
The new law now makes the Federal Court statute of limitations a 10 Year Statute — the victim must file suit before age 28. The new legislation also adds ‘discovery rule’ language — meaning the time can be further tolled until the victim understands the relationship between the harmful event and an injury related thereto.
The majority of abuse survivors would prefer to utilize the state court system — due to ease of use, availability of skilled lawyers, and more flexible civil procedures. The new federal law, likely passed with elite athletes in mind, is important for victims injured out of country or by an entity not easily sued in state court.