For many childhood sexual assault survivors, coming to terms with their trauma is a very personal and often prolonged process. And until recently, the laws in most states haven't been particularly responsive to that fact.
Laws called statutes of limitations set firm deadlines on the right to file a lawsuit, and have effectively deprived many abuse survivors of their day in court. But by enacting a new set of laws in 2019, New Jersey became one of a number of states to expand and protect the legal options of childhood sexual abuse survivors. This article will discuss key details of this law (known as S477), including:
One rationale for a statute of limitations deadline is that the more time that passes after an alleged wrong occurs, the harder it is for the parties to formulate an effective case. Memories fade, witnesses move away, and evidence gets lost or deteriorates. That's one reason why it's extremely difficult to bring a civil lawsuit after the statute of limitations has run. Unless a special exception applies, the court will throw out the case, no matter how meritorious it is.
Before S477 became law, New Jersey plaintiffs in sexual abuse and assault civil lawsuits didn't have much time to bring their case to court. If the survivor was under the age of 18 when the abuse occurred, they had to bring a lawsuit within two years from the discovery of the abuse, or before they reached the age of 20, whichever was later. If the abuse took place when the survivor was an adult, they had just two years to file suit in most instances. These deadlines left many potential plaintiffs unable to seek justice for the harm they suffered.
Now, thanks to S477, filing deadlines are much more lenient. Here are the highlights:
The new law also makes special mention of court discretion to toll or pause the statute of limitations for equitable reasons. In other words, if the defendant placed the plaintiff under duress, or the plaintiff's mental state resulted in a disability, a court may hold a hearing and order an independent psychiatric evaluation to decide if the statute of limitations deadline should be extended, allowing the survivor to file a lawsuit.
Learn more about time limits for filing a childhood sexual abuse lawsuit.
When S477 became law on December 1, 2019, it changed not just when plaintiffs could sue, but who they could sue. For example, public entities and their employees can no longer claim governmental immunity when facing a civil lawsuit over sexual abuse, and an often-restrictive set of filing rules (under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act) will not apply to a lawsuit alleging that a government or public entity was negligent in the hiring, supervision, or retention of an employee who committed sexual assault or a similar crime against a minor. These rules would apply to a lawsuit against a school district or other public entity.
S477 also removed much of the legal immunity of non-profit organizations in sexual abuse cases. This opens up churches, most schools, and charitable organizations to liability where they previously enjoyed immunity.
A unique provision of S477 is that it creates a two-year lookback window for individuals to file almost any sexual abuse lawsuit, even when the right to file was seemingly lost under the statute of limitations.
From December 1, 2019 to November 30, 2021, any sexual abuse survivor can bring suit, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. This means if a plaintiff's case got thrown out in the past because the plaintiff missed the statute of limitations deadline, they can refile the lawsuit, as long as they do so before November 30, 2021.
As plaintiff-friendly as S477 is, it has one significant limitation: child sex abuse plaintiffs cannot join together to bring their claims as a class action. S477 also voids any settlement agreement between a class of plaintiffs and one or more defendants.
If you're interested in learning more about S477 and how it might affect your options for seeking justice over childhood sexual abuse, you might want to discuss your situation with a New Jersey attorney. Discover what a lawyer can do for you and how to find the right one. And for more details on the spectrum of help available to sexual abuse survivors, see our companion article Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse.