Legislature seeks to remove civil statute of limitations for childhood victims of sex abuse
PHOENIX -- State lawmakers voted Monday to give childhood victims of sex abuse an entire lifetime to sue those who assaulted them.
Without dissent, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure to repeal the existing laws that require civil suits to be filed within two years of someone turning 18. For incidents that take place in the future, there will be no statute of limitations.
SB 1292 also opens a window for those who were abused in the past 35 years, giving them one year from the time the law takes effect to file suit, even if the time limit had previously run out.
But legislators agreed to limit the ability to file these claims solely to cases based on a defendant's "direct or intentional conduct.'
Sen. Amanda Aguirre, D-Yuma, who crafted the legislation, said that would permit sex abuse victims to go after not only the perpetrator years after the event but anyone who had actual knowledge of the abuse.
But Aguirre said it would leave the current time limits in place if someone wanted to sue a church or a school district for simply being negligent in supervising its employees. And she said it also would bar late-filed lawsuits even if a victim could show that an organization or even a specific person had suspicions someone was a molester but failed to act.
The measure now goes to the full Senate.
Ron Johnson, who lobbies on behalf of the state's three Catholic bishops, acknowledged he has been working to limit the measure from its original scope.
But Johnson said it is not designed to shield those responsible. He said there is a "public policy' reason to ensure that businesses -- including churches and schools -- be able to purchase insurance. Without some limit on litigation, Johnson said, no coverage would be available.
He isn't the only one pushing for limits. Jack LaSota who lobbies on behalf of the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust said school districts that purchase liability insurance through his organization want some assurances that the law won't be changed so broadly as to open the door to decades-old lawsuits solely because someone who turned out to be a molester happened to be employed years ago.
Monday's vote followed a plea last week from Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau who told lawmakers he was the victim of abuse as a child. Babeau said he knows from experience why it's important to provide a civil alternative to those who were abused but could not get justice in criminal proceedings.
"I won't get into all the legal complications with the courts,' he said. "But I was denied justice.'
Babeau said his assailant was known to law enforcement and had victimized others but "never saw a day in jail.'
"Where was the justice for all of these people?' he asked.
While Babeau did not explain why the assailant in his particular cases was not prosecuted, Yuma County Attorney Jon Smith told legislators that it is often difficult to gain a conviction in these kind of cases, particularly those without an outside witness, unless the assailant confesses.
The advantage of allowing civil suits, Smith said, is that the standard of proof is much lower.
A criminal conviction requires a jury to conclude someone is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt.' In a civil case, however, jurors must believe only it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the act.
Babeau said his case is actually in the minority because it came to the attention of police. He said only 13 percent of girls report abuse; the figure among boys is in the 3 percent range.
Smith said changing the law does more than give a victim his or her "day in court.' He said it helps publicly identify abusers.
In California, he said, a change in the law similar to this resulted in the filing of about 300 lawsuits that would not otherwise have been able to go to court. In Delaware, Smith said, there were about 60 such lawsuits.
"If we can't put them in jail, let's get them identified so the abuse can stop,' Smith said. "That's our goal from out law enforcement standpoint.'
That argument was backed by Jeff Dion, acting executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
"We can identify perpetrators who are continuing to molest kids,' he said.
"Pedophiles don't retire,' Dion continued. "Even when the victim waits 30 years to disclose the abuse, if the perpetrator is still alive we find them at 70 or 80 years old, in walkers and wheelchairs, continuing to molest kids.'
How much effect the limitation on who can be sued will have remains unclear. Smith said probably 95 percent of sexual abuse cases are intra-family rather than at schools or churches.
But Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, said he wants to be sure that the final version of the bill does not shield employers who turn a blind eye to complaints of abuse, even if they don't have actual knowledge of an incident. He said that all employers, whether public or private have a responsibility to not only screen workers but also to exercise reasonable supervision over their employees.