Retrospective Legislation

Legislation extending the time during which abuse victims can sue may violate state constitutional provisions.

Church Law and Tax 1994-01-01 Recent Developments

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point: A number of states have enacted laws extending the time during which adult survivors of child sexual abuse can file lawsuits seeking damages for their injuries. Some of these laws may violate state constitutional provisions prohibiting “retrospective legislation.”

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a state law extending the time during which an adult survivor of child sexual abuse could sue for damages violated the state constitution. An adult male sued his former priest, church, and Catholic diocese alleging that he had been repeatedly molested while a minor by the priest. The alleged victim claimed that he was intimidated into silence because of his trust in the priest, his belief that the priest was a close family friend, his perception of the priest’s greater physical strength, and his young age. He also alleged that the abuse caused him to repress the incidents so that he was unable to know or perceive that he was a victim of sexual abuse or that he suffered injuries from that abuse. He further alleged that it was not until many years later (in 1989), with the aid of therapy, that he began to make the connection between physical and emotional injuries he suffered and the acts of abuse. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it had been filed after the statute of limitations expired. Under Missouri law, the general statute of limitations for personal injuries is five years (although for injuries occurring to minors, the statute does not begin to run until the minor’s eighteenth birthday). However, Missouri enacted a statute in 1990 that provides: “In any civil action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse, the time for commencement of the action shall be within five years of the date the plaintiff attains the age of eighteen or within three years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or illness was caused by child sexual abuse, whichever later occurs.” The parties to the case all agreed that the lawsuit had been filed within the extended period permitted by the 1990 statute since the alleged victim only “discovered” that his emotional problems were connected to the abuse in recent years. However, the church defendants maintained that this extended statute of limitations violated the Missouri Constitution, which prohibits the enactment of any law that is “retrospective in its operation.” They argued that the original statute of limitations period of five years had expired by the time the Missouri legislature enacted the extended limitations statute, and accordingly the new law could not be applied to them. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed:

This Court has held that once the original statute of limitation expires and bars the plaintiff’s action, the defendant has acquired a vested right to be free from suit, a right that is substantive in nature, and therefore, [the state constitution] prohibits the legislative revival of the cause of action …. Moreover, this appears to be the majority view among jurisdictions with constitutional provisions similar to [ours]. We see no reason to depart from our precedent …. In conclusion, we hold that the expiration of the … the five-year statute of limitation … created a vested right in favor of the defendants to be free from suit. Therefore, to the extent that [the extended limitations statute] authorizes causes of action that would have been barred under [the five year statute of limitations] it clearly contravenes the constitutional prohibition against retrospective laws. Doe v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, 1993 WL 379450 (Mo. September 29, 1993).

See Also: Negligence as a Basis of Liability – Defenses

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