Vt. bill would eliminate statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood sex abuse

  • Rep. Maxine Grad speaks as Rep. Martin LaLonde listens during a discussion last year. Photo by Colin Meyn/VTDigger

Thursday, March 07, 2019

A proposed bill would eliminate statute of limitations in Vermont for a victim of childhood sexual abuse to bring a civil lawsuit against those responsible.

“This bill proposes to repeal the statute of limitations for civil actions based on childhood sexual abuse,” the legislation stated, “and permit such actions to be brought at any time.”

The bill, House Bill 330, is sponsored by Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, and Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

The panel heard testimony on the legislation last week and is expected to take the bill up again following the Town Meeting Day weeklong break.

LaLonde, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an interview that he brought the bill forward in response to a forum at the Statehouse late last year.

At that event, Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast and the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of molestation, spoke of the trauma of sexual abuse.

Nassar was convicted on child pornography charges in 2017 and on sex assault charges last year. He was sentenced to decades in prison.

The forum at the Statehouse last year took place 10 years after the sexual assault and slaying of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett of Randolph. That Vermont case shocked the state and led lawmakers to overhaul the state’s response to child sexual abuse.

At that event in December, LaLonde said, there were several “breakout” sessions where suggestions were made on additional steps the state can take to address childhood sexual abuse.

“One of them that seemed the most obvious was the statute of limitations on the civil side,” LaLonde said. “That’s what really compelled this legislation.”

On the criminal side, the most severe sex crimes, including aggravated sexual assault of a minor, have no statute of limitations under legislation passed last session. Other sex offenses involving minors saw the statute of limitations extended to 40 years.

“A victim may repress the memory and it can take years for it to finally come out,” LaLonde said of the need to change the statute of limitations on civil claims as well.

Vermont’s statute of limitations allows people to file court cases only up to six years after they realize their abuse has caused personal harm.

Burlington lawyer Jerome O’Neill, who has filed some four dozen priest misconduct claims against Vermont’s Catholic Church in the past quarter-century, has long argued that the clock on the state’s six-year statute of limitations for filing civil cases starts not on the date of abuse but instead on the day a person discovers an offender or affiliated institution is culpable.

O’Neill testified last week in support of the legislation, sharing with the committee his experience with childhood sexual abuse victims.

“It’s commonplace for people to be unable to bring cases forward,” O’Neill said of the situation with the current statute of limitations in place for civil claims.

“The shame and the fear and the unwillingness to kind of delve into it themselves and deal with it, is such that the average age that people are really ready and able to delve in and deal with it is in their 40s,” he said. “I would say my average clients over the period of time I’ve been doing this has been in their 40s.”

He said he couldn’t predict if the proposed change in the law would lead to more civil cases being brought against Vermont’s Catholic Church. “I don’t want to speculate on what the effect would be on any entity, the only people I’m concerned about are the survivors,” O’Neill said.

Sarah Robinson, deputy director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, could not be reached Wednesday for comment, but she did provide written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of the proposed legislation.

“The current 6-year statute of limitations for civil actions related to child sexual abuse sets forth a timeline that has no relation to the dynamics of child sexual abuse or the challenges that victims face in coming forward,” she wrote.

“As we have outlined for this committee in testimony on criminal statutes of limitations, lifting these limits expands victims’ ability to seek healing and justice,” Robinson added. “Many victims — especially victims of crimes which are sexual in nature — experience significant barriers to coming forward. Victims of child sexual abuse often struggle with shame and mistrust of investigative or judicial processes.”

The bill, if passed, would go into effect July 1.

The proposed legislation also includes a provision that would allow a civil action to be brought by a person that previously would have been barred by the current statute limitation up to July 1, 2021.

“In an action brought pursuant to this section,” the legislation stated, “damages may be awarded against an entity that employed, supervised, or had responsibility for the person allegedly committing the sexual abuse only if there is a finding of gross negligence on the part of the entity.”

LaLonde said discussion in the committee is continuing regarding that provision.

“The committee also is considering whether to just have the statute of limitations retroactively entirely, not just have a two-year window,” he said. “That’s something we haven’t made a decision on.”