The Maryland legislature seems poised to change the statute of limitations for sex abuse. Our lawyers lay it out the Child Victims Act of 2023 that seeks to provide child sexual abuse victims with expanded opportunities to hold wrongdoers accountable.
Where We Are Now
This week, the Maryland Senate approved legislation on March 16 that would eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits. The bill establishes a “lookback window,” allowing survivors to take legal action regardless of when the abuse took place.
The 42-5 vote in favor of the Child Victims Act of 2023 clears the path for its enactment. A Maryland House bill with the same name has been cross-filed and is expected to pass easily, as similar House legislation has in recent years. Governor Wes Moore has also publicly expressed his support for the bill. This feels like a done deal.
Current Statute of Limitations for Sex Abuse in Maryland
Court’s and Judicial Proceeding Code §-117 outlines the statute of limitations for actions arising from alleged sexual abuse of a minor in Maryland. According to this law:
- A victim can file a lawsuit for damages before they reach the age of majority or within 20 years after they reach the age of majority. Alternatively, they can file within 3 years after the defendant is convicted of a crime related to the alleged sexual abuse.
- In cases where the lawsuit is filed more than 7 years after the victim reaches the age of majority and the defendant is not the alleged perpetrator, damages may only be awarded if: a. The defendant owed a duty of care to the victim, b. The defendant employed the alleged perpetrator or had some degree of responsibility or control over them, and c. There is a finding of gross negligence on the part of the defendant.
- An action for damages cannot be filed against a person or governmental entity that is not the alleged perpetrator more than 20 years after the victim reaches the age of majority.
New Legislation Has Cap on Damages
Maryland has caps on noneconomic damages and this new bill will also place caps on pain and suffering damages for sex abuse. The Senate bill that passed will have a hard damages cap for governments and school boards of $890,000.
But that cap goes up against private institutions (which has ranked the Catholic Church who opposes this bill). The pain and suffering limit would be $1.5 million for claims against private institutions with no economic damages cap.
Why a Different Maryland Sex Abuse Statute of Limitations Makes Sense
The extension of the statute of limitations for civil sex abuse cases in Maryland is a result of several factors, including:
The nature of sexual abuse: Sexual abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, can have long-lasting effects on victims, who may not fully comprehend the extent of the abuse or its implications until well into adulthood. As survivors struggle with the emotional and psychological consequences of the abuse, they may not be prepared to pursue legal action within a shorter time frame.
The need for healing and recovery: Recovering from sexual abuse can be a long and challenging process, often involving therapy and support from loved ones. Recognizing the time needed for healing, Maryland has extended the statute of limitations to provide survivors with an adequate window of opportunity to address their trauma and seek justice.
The delayed disclosure of abuse: Victims of sexual abuse, particularly children, may not immediately disclose their abuse due to fear, shame, or manipulation by the abuser. By extending the statute of limitations, Maryland aims to accommodate the potential for delayed disclosure and ensure that victims have sufficient time to come forward.
Is the New Maryland Sex Abuse Law Constitutional?
The primary constitutional issue raised by Senate Bill 686 is whether allowing a victim of child sexual abuse to file a civil action at any time without limitation, including for previously barred actions, impairs a vested right. The letter delves into the distinctions between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose, as well as the Maryland Supreme Court’s views on vested rights.
Difference Between Statute of Limitations and Statute of Repose
A statute of limitations is a law that sets a time limit for suing in a civil case based on when the claim accrued, while a statute of repose is a law barring any suit brought after a specified time since the defendant acted, even if the period ends before the plaintiff has suffered a resulting injury.
Before the amendment of Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (CJP) § 5-117 by Chapter 12 in 2017, it was a statute of limitations. The legislative intent of House Bill 642 was to extend the limitations, allowing victims more time to bring civil claims. However, the wording of CJP § 5-117(d) and Section 3 of Chapter 12 has led to arguments that it was intended to create a statute of repose.
But… even if the 2017 enactment was intended to create a statute of repose, the elimination of a statute of repose might not impair a vested right in all cases. We have an asbestos specific statute of limitations that added exceptions for asbestos claims that is still good law today. So there will be a battle in the Maryland Supreme Court but it is a winnable battle.
The bill goes to the Maryland House of Delegates where it is expected to pass. Similarly, Governor Moore is expected to sign the bill.