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Sex, Abuse and Statutes of Limitations

February 12, 2014

statue

Recently, a well-publicized case was dismissed because the Statute of Limitations (SOLs) had run. I’m referring to the case where Yeshiva University and three individual defendants were accused of sexual abuse against students at Yeshiva U. High School.

This case had special meaning to me because I attended the High School during the time when the alleged abuse occurred and I attended Yeshiva College. In addition, I know two of the individual defendants relatively well.

The main problem with the case was that the plaintiffs waited many years before they filed suit. This is understandable because these were young men who claimed to be sexually abused by their teachers. Obviously, this was psychologically difficult for them.

Allegedly, some of the 34 plaintiffs had even complained to their parents, who had in turn complained to the school. Nothing was done to discipline the accused offenders and no investigation was done.

Clearly, Yeshiva U’s best procedural card was claiming that the statute of limitation had run and the claim should be dismissed.

And, that’s exactly what happened. United States District Judge John G. Koeltl wrote: “Statutes of limitations strike a balance between providing a reasonable time for victims to bring their claims while assuring that defendants have a fair opportunity to defend themselves before evidence is lost or memories fade…In this case, the statutes of limitations have expired decades ago, and no exceptions apply.”

So, what was the plaintiffs’ lawyers thinking?

To explain that, I’d like to take a step back and talk about some general points of SOLs.

1.       In general,  SOLs runs from the time the victim discovers the harm. For example, if A injects B with a pathogen in 2005, but B only discovers the symptoms caused by that pathogen in 2009. The SOLs for B to sue starts running in 2009.

This presents an interesting question for child abuse cases (sexual and otherwise). The child likely will not feel the harm (like B in the case above) or identify the source of the harm until he or she is much older.

To deal with this point, New York State law allows victims of child sex abuse to sue until they are 23. In this case, all the plaintiffs were in the 40s or older.

2.       There are exceptions to SOLs. For example, war crimes, heinous crimes and fraud.

The Plaintiffs lawyer argued that Yeshiva U had covered up the abuse and that led to fraud which could be an exception to the SOL. But, he did not succeed.

What does the layman need to know about SOLs?

Although it varies from state to state, the rule of thumb is 3 year SOL for contracts and 6 years for torts. For crimes, it varies depending on the severity of the crime.

To explain very basically: Let’s say you bought a toaster and it shorted and gave you a burn. You’d have 3 years to sue over the broken toaster to get your money back (contract) and 6 years to sue for the burn (tort). If you sued after these times the defendants could claim that the SOL had run and you would lose.

Are SOLs fair?

 

I think SOLs for crimes and contracts are fair. When you enter a voluntary arrangement i.e. a contract, part of the underlying agreement is that claims based on the contract will expire at some time. That seems fair.

Likewise, for crimes. Since the burden of charging a defendant for a crime rests with the state, there needs to be an expiration date on the state’s time to prosecute.

With torts, I think it is less straightforward, especially with intentional torts. Why should someone who damages another get a free pass because time has passed? Judge Koeltl’s description notwithstanding, is it fair to deny a plaintiff his day in court because memories have faded?

Clearly, in the YU case, the plaintiffs’ memories had not faded and that’s why the decision is a triumph of formalism over justice.

Avrum Aaron is the COO of Legal Outsourcing Partners, LLC. He can be reached at 201-379-9230 or avrum@lop-llc.com.

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