ST. PAUL, Minn. - Adults who suffered childhood sexual abuse and want to file lawsuits against both abusers and the institutions that employed them will have greater access to Minnesota's court system under a bill awaiting Gov. Mark Dayton's signature.
In 1996, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that anyone over the age of 24 who alleged they were abused when they were children had no standing to file a lawsuit. Under the new law, that statute of limitations is lifted entirely for civil claims against abusers and for lawsuits on the grounds of negligence against schools, churches and other institutions. What that means is that anyone, no matter their age, will be able to file lawsuits over claims of sexual abuse that occurred when they were children.
"Right now, it's 24 and done," Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, the bill's chief House sponsor, said on Thursday. "No claim, no chance to confront your abuser in court. To me, this is about opening the courthouse doors that right now are slammed shut to childhood sex abuse victims."
The Senate passed the bill unanimously last week; it passed the House later the same day by a vote of 123-3. A spokeswoman for Dayton said he is likely to sign the bill.
The original version of the bill contained even wider grounds to sue the institutions that employed abusers, which typically have greater financial resources than the abusers themselves. But that ran into opposition from a number of groups representing those institutions, including the Minnesota Religious Council, the Minnesota Child Care Association, Minnesota School Boards Association and Minnesota School Administrators Association.
"The first thing I want to say is that we had no intentions of trying to protect perpetrators of abuse or those institutions with actual knowledge of abuse they did nothing about," said the Rev. Karen Bockelman, a retired Lutheran pastor from Duluth who chairs the Minnesota Religious Council. But she said the original Senate version of the bill would have allowed lawsuits against institutions under a claim known as vicarious liability.
"That basically means, if you hired this person then you are liable for the abuse even if absolutely no one else knew about it," Bockelman said.
To mute those concerns, the bill's sponsors re-drafted the legislation to limit lawsuits against institutions only to claims of negligence. Those claims are considered harder to prove than vicarious liability, because it means proving that leaders at the institution knew about abuse allegations but did little or nothing to address them. Bockelman said some institutions still have qualms about aspects of the bill, but that the changes made it go down more easily.
"I would have liked to have gone further, but we deal in political reality here and this was needed to get the bill through the House," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the bill's chief Senate sponsor. "I think this will hold institutions accountable for their past acts, and more important, going forward they know there's no escape for what institutions do to cover up these crimes."
Simon and Latz said it's important to loosen the statute of limitations, since many people who were sexually abused as children don't fully remember the abuse until years later or stay quiet about it because they are embarrassed or afraid to take on a prominent institution in the community such as a school or church.
Under the legislation, abuse victims can file claims of negligence against institutions for abuse that occurs after the bill's enactment date of Aug. 1. The enactment date also triggers a three-year window in which past victims can file claims of negligence against institutions.
That's likely to mean a number of lawsuits against prominent Minnesota institutions that have been the subject of recent claims that they sheltered abusive teachers, pastors or other authority figures. Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who specializes in representing sexual abuse victims, said he'd use the three-year window to bring lawsuits against Breck School in Golden Valley, Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, several of the state's Roman Catholic dioceses and the Boy Scouts of America.
"All these institutions that have failed to protect kids and protected their reputation instead can be held accountable," Anderson said.