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In Abuse Lawsuit, Timing Is Everything

By Marianna Brown Bettman · July 12th, 2006 · Legally Speaking
I'll sue you! Undoubtedly, we've all heard or uttered those words. How long is this threat good? In other words, can you sue someone forever, long after the perceived harm, or is there some cut off?

There is indeed a cut off. The legal term for it is "statute of limitations." The statute of limitations is the time within which a person must assert a legal claim. When the time runs out, you can no longer sue. So this is obviously an important concept in the law.

The main reason statutes of limitations exist is to be fair to the defendant, the person being sued. We all know that, as time passes, memories fade. Evidence disappears. Statutes of limitations encourage the prompt filing of claims and prevent stale claims.

Statutes of limitations raise interesting separation-of-powers issues between the legislature and the courts. The legislature sets the length of statutes of limitations. For example, the statute of limitations for injuries from a car accident is two years.

Normally, the statute of limitations starts to run when the wrongful act is committed. But what happens if a wrongful act occurs but a person is not yet aware that he or she is injured? For example, a surgeon accidentally leaves a sponge in a patient's abdomen, but the patient doesn't realize anything is wrong and has no problems for many years, then becomes symptomatic. Should the statute start to run when the doctor left the sponge in, or should it only start to run when the patient discovers the injury?

And what exactly triggers or starts the running of a statute of limitations? These issues have generally been for courts to decide.

One more lesson before we look at the most interesting statute of limitations issue decided in the courts in years. Sometimes the statute of limitations is interrupted or stopped (the legal term is "tolled") by operation of law. An example is minority. Minors have until some period after attaining adulthood to file suit for an injury that happened during childhood.

OK, enough teaching. If this sounds dry, it isn't, especially when the context is sexual abuse of a minor by a priest.

John Doe (his name has been disclosed to the defendants but not to the public) alleges he was molested by a priest from about 1980-83, when he was 12-15 years old. The priest worked in a church operated by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Doe turned 18 in 1986. He filed suit against the priest, the archdiocese and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk in April 2004, when he was 36.

Was this too late? Had the statute of limitations expired? That was the issue before the Ohio Supreme Court in Doe v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati, decided in May.

Sex abuse is a civil battery, a type of personal injury that is intentional, not accidental. The statute of limitations for battery is one year. As long as the identity of the perpetrator is known, which it was in this case, a minor has one year from the age of 18 to bring this claim. The statute started to run when the young man was abused but was tolled by law until he was an adult. So his suit against the priest, filed many years after his 18th birthday, seems clearly to have been filed too late.

But Doe's claim against the priest wasn't the issue in this appeal. The issue was whether the statute of limitations had run on his separate claims against the archdiocese and the archbishop for failing to warn and protect him from further harm. The statutes of limitations on these claims were from two to five years. But when were these statutes triggered? Had Doe filed these claims too late?

Doe alleged that it was only in the year 2002 that he learned there were other victims of the same priest. Before he knew that, he argued, he had no reason to believe the archdiocese and Pilarczyk might have been involved in this matter. So, he argued, consistent with Ohio precedent, the statute of limitations didn't start to run as to the archdiocesan defendants until 2002, when he realized their involvement.

Up until now, the Ohio Supreme Court has been extremely lenient with this judge-made time-of-discovery-rule, allowing injured parties time to connect the injuries and the conduct of all culpable parties. This has not been a one-sided rule. An injured party cannot just sit around and do nothing to discover the source of his or her injuries. The test for triggering the statute of limitations is when the injured person knew or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known of the connection between the injury and the conduct of one or more defendants.

In an opinion written by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a 5-2 majority of the Ohio Supreme Court -- two appellate judges sat for two justices who recused themselves in the case -- held that, when Doe knew he had been abused by the priest, he also should have suspected and been put on notice of the involvement of the archdiocesan defendants. Knowledge of the abuse and the abuser also triggered the statute against the archdiocesan defendants at the same time.

Justice Paul Pfeifer, finding himself more and more the great dissenter with this court, disagreed with the majority, finding that the claim against the archdiocese for allowing or covering up the abuse should be subject to a different, much later statute-of-limitations triggering event from the triggering event against the priest himself. He would have allowed the archdiocesan claims to proceed and chided the court for failing to follow its own precedent.

I'm with Pfeifer on this one. I think it's totally unfair to assume a young person abused by a priest should or would at the same time assume the archdiocese was involved. Did any of the rest of us make that assumption back then?

Marianna Brown Bettman, a former Ohio appeals court judge, teaches at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.


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