New California Law Gives Victims of Childhood Sexual Assault More Time to File Lawsuits

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Last month, California approved a new law that extends the statute of limitations in which a childhood sexual assault victim can report their abuser. 

The new law—AB 218, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 13—seeks that sexual abusers of minors face the weight of the law by opening a three-year window for victims to make claims that were previously prohibited, starting on Jan. 1, 2020. It also extends the civil statute of limitations either until age 40 or five years from discovery of the abuse to file civil lawsuits. The previous limit had been 26, or within three years from discovery of the abuse.  

The new law is considered an important step forward for survivors of child sexual abuse and is critical in the effort to protect California’s children, and a chance for sexual abuse survivors who where afraid, unwilling or unable to talk about their experiences to come forward. 

“The idea that someone who is assaulted as a child can actually run out of time to report that abuse is outrageous,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the bill’s author. “More and more, we’re hearing about people who were victims years ago but were not ready to come forward to tell their story until now.”

Take 55-year-old John E. Hanson, for instance. At just 10 years old, he became a victim of sexual assault after now-defrocked Orange County priest Richard T. Coughlin allegedly followed him into a bathroom on his school campus, forced him into a stall and sexually assaulted him. Hanson told The Southern California News Group in a phone interview that the incident had left him “emotionally as a 10-year-old for [his] entire life.” For victims like him, AB 218 offers at least a smidgen of hope. 

“It’s a chance for me to heal and move on,” Hanson told the newspaper. “It’s also a chance for others to heal and move on.”

The legislation was introduced following following across-the-board claims of abuse of minors by Catholic priests, in addition to the 2018 conviction of former U.S. Olympic gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, for molesting young athletes. Newsom also signed a bill that temporarily lifts the statute of limitations on lawsuits for damages over sex abuse allegations against former USC campus gynecologist George Tyndall, who is accused of inappropriately touching 16 patients during his work at USC’s campus health clinic and who pleaded “not guilty” back in July.

Nearly 400 women have come forward with allegations against Tyndall, but they had been unable to legally make their claim because the statute of limitations for damages arising from a sexual assault that transpired when the victim was an adult is 10 years from the date of the last actionable conduct or three years from the discovery of the resulting injury, whichever is later.

This bill changes the reference from childhood sexual abuse to childhood sexual assault, as defined, and it removes the requirement that the conduct occurred on or after that specified date. The bill also makes a conforming change to the provision governing confidentiality provisions in childhood sexual abuse claims.

California is the third state in the nation this year to take the step to protect victims of sexual abuse. Earlier this year, New York and New Jersey increased the time limit to report at the age of 55.

New York also suspended the statute of limitations for one year, which led to hundreds of lawsuits against hospitals, schools, churches and against the late millionaire Jeffrey Epstein. It is believed that the same could happen in California, once the law takes effect.