NEWARK, N.J. -- Experts expect that the loosening of limits on sexual-abuse claims in New Jersey will cause a shift in the way those lawsuits are brought, giving hope to victims who have long suffered in silence and exposing a broader spectrum of institutions to potential liability.
Legislation that was passed in the spring and goes into effect today allows child victims to sue until they turn 55, or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. Before the new law, the limit was two years. Adult victims also have seven years from the discovery of the abuse, and victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitations have a two-year window to file claims.
That's welcome news for people like Dennis Bachman, a 40-year-old construction worker from Westville in southern New Jersey, who plans to file a lawsuit accusing a female counselor of sexually abusing him at a home for youths in Salem County. He said it took him a long time to recognize he had been abused, in part because of a misguided societal view that damage done to boys abused by women "isn't the same" as other kinds of abuse.
"Maybe [it will] give me a chance to make things right," Bachman said. "I caused so much damage in my life in so many different ways. I figured maybe this would give me a chance to settle some things."
New Jersey's push for expanding the statute of limitations gained momentum after last year's release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that catalogued the experiences of thousands of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, as well as the church's cover-up of the scandal.
Many states have overhauled their criminal and civil statutes of limitations in the past 10 or 15 years, but only a handful -- including California, Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota -- have created so-called lookback windows for lawsuits. New York enacted a bill earlier this year that creates a window similar to the one in New Jersey.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America have already been inundated with sexual-abuse lawsuits that were filed when similar laws were passed in other states. The church opposed the legal change in New Jersey, saying it wanted to push back the date it took effect.
But the two organizations are far from the only defendants.
Attorneys Jay Mascolo and Jason Amala represent about 40 people who are set to file lawsuits in New Jersey. They said their clients mostly allege abuse at the hands of people associated with the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts but that about a quarter of the suits involve other institutions.
Attorney Robert Fuggi said a key component of the law is that it removes an earlier provision that held that a person acting in loco parentis, or "in place of a parent," could only be liable if the abuse occurred "within the household."
The change will make it easier to take legal action against public schools, Fuggi said. It also could help revive a suit brought by one of his clients, who said her high school's assistant band director repeatedly sexually assaulted her in 2004. A state appeals court dismissed that case, ruling the "household" provision didn't apply to public schools.
"I think you're going to see substantially more claims against public schools than ever before," Fuggi said.
The new law has prompted some criticism that the two-year window exposes institutions to retroactive claims that could sink organizations whose current employees are not implicated and whose work could be upended by hefty damages.
Alida Kass, the president and chief counsel of the New Jersey Civil Justice Institute, which advocates against lawsuit abuse, opposed the legislation because it lacked amendments to target only predators and institutions that were complicit in alleged crimes.
"There is at least a measure of justice in holding an organization to account, even years later, for their willful misdeeds," she said. "[But] we are not talking about charities that didn't do background checks when no one was doing background checks, or that failed to have as-yet unheard of protocols, or missed the warning signs that we now take for granted."
A Section on 12/01/2019
Print Headline: N.J.'s sex-abuse law opens legal options, experts say