Maine Expands Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors' Legal Options

Recent changes to Maine law give sexual abuse survivors more time to seek justice in court.

By , Attorney

In 2021, Maine joined the ranks of states that have taken steps to expand the rights of survivors of childhood sexual abuse and assault. In the sections below, we'll:

  • explain how statute of limitations lawsuit-filing deadlines work, and how they can act as a barrier to justice for sexual assault
  • detail Maine's recent expansion of the statute of limitations for the filing of a lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse, and
  • look at next steps for survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Maine.

The "Statute of Limitations" and Sexual Abuse

Dealing with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse is often a lengthy process. Suppressed memories and psychological harm ("damages" in legalese) can take years to fully surface. It may take decades of healing before a survivor can tell others about the abuse, let alone confront the perpetrator by filing a civil lawsuit. But by then, these kinds of lawsuits may very well be blocked by "statutes of limitations."

Statutes of limitations are deadlines placed on the right to file lawsuits against certain parties, like perpetrators, or the private organizations or government agencies that employed, supervised or were responsible for the actions of the perpetrators. Generally, these deadlines make sense; memories fade, witnesses move or die, and evidence may go missing. The more time that passes after an injury, the harder it becomes for the parties to formulate an effective case, or mount a proper defense. So, statutes of limitations preserve fairness by limiting "stale" claims. Unless special exceptions apply, courts will refuse to consider old claims, no matter how valid.

But how fair are those deadlines when the nature of the injury itself makes it hard to come forward, often until long after the deadlines expire, depriving sexual abuse survivors of a day in court? Can you still get a legal remedy for sexual abuse that might have occurred a long time ago?

Maine's Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

Until 1999, sexual abuse survivors generally had 12 years from the event, or six years from discovering or reasonably discovering the harm, to file a lawsuit against the abuser in Maine's civil court system. If the claim involved a state government entity or employer, the survivor had until he or she turned 21. In 1999, Maine eliminated the statute of limitations for bringing claims against the abuser and non-government entities from 2000 going forward. Survivors with unexpired claims in 2000, and anyone whose right to file arose later on, could file lawsuits at any time. However, survivors who experienced abuse before 2000—or who wanted to sue government agencies or employees—were still subject to the old limits.

Finally on July 21, 2021 via "An Act to Provide Access to Justice for Victims of Child Sexual Abuse," Maine essentially revoked the statute of limitations entirely, allowing all survivors to file a lawsuit against any type of defendant regardless of when the abuse happened or when the prior statute of limitations expired. (See the details of L.D. 589.)

In short, victims can now sue at any time both the abuser and any organization (like non-profits, churches, youth organizations, etc.,) that:

  • facilitated or enabled the abuse
  • failed to take appropriate action to put a stop to the abuse once the organization was on notice of what was happening
  • took steps to cover up the abuse or protect the abuser, and/or failed to meet its legal obligations with regard to reporting the abuse.

Another key provision of L.D. 589 is that it removes sexual abuse claims from the strict claim-filing procedures and deadlines that apply to injury claims brought against the government in Maine (under a law called the Maine Tort Claims Act). So if a government agency or employee is liable for committing or failing to prevent sexual abuse in Maine, a survivor will face no special legal hurdles (and effectively no statute of limitations) in pursuing justice.

Next Steps for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Maine

If you're interested in learning more about L.D. 589 and how it might affect your options for seeking justice over childhood sexual abuse, it might make sense to discuss your situation with a Maine attorney. You can use the tools on this page to make a confidential connection with a lawyer near you, or learn more about finding the right attorney for you, and how a lawyer can help. Finally, for more on the spectrum of help available to sexual abuse survivors, see our companion article Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse.

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