Doe v. First United Methodist Church, 1992 WL 281323 (Ohio App. 9 Dist. 1992—unpublished decision)
Key point: Minors who are sexually molested by church workers may not sue their church after the statute of limitations has expired. Generally, the statute of limitations begins to run on a minor's 18th birthday. In some states the statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult survivor of child sexual molestation "discovers" that he or she has experienced physical or emotional suffering as a result of the molestation. Other states do not recognize this so-called "discovery rule."
An Ohio appeals court threw out a lawsuit brought by a 25-year-old man who had been repeatedly molested as a minor by a church choir director.
The victim had been molested over a period of 3 years (from 1981 through 1984) when he was between 15 and 18 years of age. He turned 18 in July of 1984. In July of 1991, shortly after his 25th birthday, the victim filed a lawsuit against the choir director and his church. He alleged that the director was guilty of assault and battery, and that the church had been negligent in the selection and supervision of the choir director.
Ohio has a 1-year statute of limitations for assault and battery, meaning that a lawsuit alleging assault and battery must be brought within one year following the alleged wrongdoing. Ohio has a 2-year statute of limitations for bodily injury resulting from negligence. Obviously, these statutes had expired long before the victim brought his lawsuit in 1991. However, the victim insisted that the statutes had not expired since he did not discover the nature and extent of his injuries until he sought psychological help in September of 1989.
A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the statutes of limitations began running on the victim's 18th birthday (in 1984), and not when he sought counseling in 1989. The victim appealed, and a state appeals court upheld the trial court's decision. With regard to the claim of assault and battery against the choir director, the court noted that the 1-year statute of limitations for assault and battery expired prior to the time the victim brought his lawsuit even if the statute did not begin to run until he sought counseling in 1989.
Further, the court refused to allow the victim to "utilize other theories of law to transform this battery into another type of action with a longer limitations period." This would "totally defeat this limitation which always has been set deliberately short at one year." The court acknowledged that the lawsuit against the church was brought within the 2-year statute of limitations for negligence if the statute began to run on the date the victim sought counseling. However, it refused to apply a "discovery" rule in this case. The court observed:
Because [the victim's] action against the … church was not based on assault, but rather on the alleged negligence … the bodily injury two-year limitation applied. Thus, as to [the church] we must determine when [the victim's] cause of action accrued. Although the offensive conduct at issue occurred repeatedly between 1981 and 1984, all of the applicable statutes of limitations were tolled until [the victim's] eighteenth birthday on July 7, 1984. [The victim] argues that because he did not discover the extent of his psychological injuries until he sought counseling in 1989, his cause of action did not accrue until that time. In general, a cause of action exists from the time the wrongful act was committed. However, application of this general rule sometimes served to bar an injured party's right to recovery before he was even aware of its existence. Thus, the discovery rule was developed in certain bodily injury and medical malpractice cases to ease "the unconscionable result to innocent victims who by exercising even the highest degree of care could not have discovered the cited wrong." This case does not involve any claim that [the victim] had repressed his memory of these incidents with [the choir director]. When [the victim] turned eighteen he was fully aware of [the choir director's] prior tortious actions. Although he might not have been aware of the full extent of his injuries at that time, he knew he had in fact been assaulted. Thus, there is no reason to toll the running of the statute of limitations.
This is an important development. Many adult survivors of child sexual molestation have brought lawsuits many years (and in some cases decades) after their 18th birthday, claiming that they had not "discovered" the nature and extent of their psychological harm until they sought professional counseling. A number of states (perhaps as many as 15) have adopted the so-called "discovery rule," under which the statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult survivor of child sexual molestation discovers the nature and extent of his or her injuries, whenever that may occur. Of course, such a rule presents extraordinary difficulties for a church in attempting to defend itself. In some cases, church leaders cannot even remember the alleged molester, much less the precautions that were followed in selecting or supervising this person. Because of these difficulties, a majority of states have rejected the discovery rule.
This case illustrates the majority rule. But this case is important for another reason. The court rejected the victim's assertion that he was not aware of his injuries until he sought counseling when he was 25 years old. The court observed: "This case does not involve any claim that [the victim] had repressed his memory of these incidents with [the choir director]. When [the victim] turned eighteen he was fully aware of [the choir director's] prior tortious actions. Although he might not have been aware of the full extent of his injuries at that time, he knew he had in fact been assaulted."
What was the court saying? Simply this—adult survivors of child sexual molestation should not be permitted to sue churches years or decades after an incident of molestation simply by asserting that they were not aware of their injuries until they sought counseling. Of course, in some cases such a claim will be legitimate, particularly in cases involving molestation of young children. But when a victim is a teenager, such a claim will be more difficult to prove. Because of the almost impossible burden that is imposed on churches in such cases to disprove allegations of negligence for an alleged incident that occurred many years before, courts should view such claims of "delayed discovery" with skepticism. This reasoning will be useful to churches in those states that recognize the discovery rule.