Vermont's Legal Options for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

Vermont has greatly expanded survivors' ability to file a lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse, even when the harm occurred decades ago.

By , J.D.

Vermont is one of the states leading the charge to expand the legal options of childhood sexual abuse survivors, especially when it comes to seeking justice against abusers and those who failed to prevent these criminal acts. Let's take a closer look at recent legislative moves in Vermont.

Is There a Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse Lawsuits In Vermont?

Not anymore. But let's take a step back and explain that a statute of limitations is a law that sets a strictly-enforced time limit on the right to get a case started in court. In the context of a personal injury case and other types of civil lawsuits, the person who has been harmed (the plaintiff), usually has a specific number of years (the time limit varies depending on the nature of the case) to file the initial papers in court. Failure to take action before the filing deadline passes almost always means the potential plaintiff has lost the right to sue over the harmful act.

Until 2019, the civil statute of limitations that applied to lawsuits over sexual abuse in Vermont (which is found at 12 V.S.A. § 522) said that this kind of case needed to be filed in court within six years of the alleged abuse, or within six years of the survivor's discovery that their harm was caused by such abuse, whichever period expired later.

But with incidents of childhood sexual abuse, it can take a decade or more for a survivor to begin processing what happened, and begin working through the trauma. By the time a survivor decides to pursue a lawsuit holding the abuser or others accountable, a six-year statute of limitations window may have already closed. (Learn more about filing a lawsuit over abuse that happened a long time ago.)

Vermont's lawmakers addressed this issue head-on in 2019, when H.330 became state law, essentially repealing the statute of limitations for lawsuits seeking compensation for harm caused by childhood sexual abuse. Now, there is no filing deadline for these kinds of cases.

Is Vermont's Repeal of the Statute of Limitations Retroactive?

Yes. Vermont's wholesale elimination of the statute of limitations for lawsuits over sexual abuse is retroactive, which means this kind of civil case can be filed at any time, even when the abuse occurred decades ago and would have been long since barred by the older version of the statute of limitations.

A number of other states (including California and New York) have passed "lookback window" laws allowing for the temporary filing of sexual abuse lawsuits that were previously time-barred. But Vermont's complete and retroactive elimination of the statute of limitations essentially created a lookback window that will always remain open.

The "Gross Negligence" Requirement for Churches, Schools, and Other Institutions in Vermont. The retroactivity we've just discussed also applies to lawsuits against churches, schools, and other institutions, but only if their role in causing or contributing to the plaintiff survivor's harm resulted from "gross negligence." This is a higher bar to clear than the one for ordinary negligence, which dictates fault in most injury-related cases and is typically defined as the failure to act with reasonable care.

Gross negligence usually requires a certain level of recklessness and/or a conscious disregard for someone's safety or rights. But certainly if a church or other organization knew (or had overwhelming evidence indicating) that one of its employees was abusing children, and organizational leaders looked the other way (or even took steps to shield the crimes), that would likely rise to the level of gross negligence. But remember that an institution's gross negligence only needs to be shown if the lawsuit would have been barred by the old statute of limitations.

Resources for Vermont Sexual Abuse Survivors

For more on the spectrum of help available to sexual abuse survivors, see our companion article Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse. Additional Vermont-specific resources can be found at the Vermont Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Abuse and the Vermont Children's Alliance. And if you're ready to discuss your options with a Vermont attorney, utilize the chat tools on this page, or learn more about finding the right attorney for you and how a lawyer can help.

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