The loosening of limits on sexual abuse claims in New Jersey is expected to create a tectonic shift in the way those lawsuits are brought, giving hope to victims who have long suffered in silence and exposing a broader spectrum of institutions to potential liability.
A law passed last spring goes into effect Sunday and allows child victims to sue until they turn 55, or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The limit was two years before the new law. Adult victims also have seven years from the discovery of the abuse, and victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitations have a two-year window to file claims.
That's welcome news for people like Dennis Bachman, a 40-year-old construction worker from Westville, in southern New Jersey, who plans to file a lawsuit alleging a female counselor sexually abused him at a home for juveniles in Salem County. He said last week it took him a long time to recognize he had been abused, in part because of a misguided societal view that says damage done to boys abused by women "isn't the same" as other kinds of abuse.
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"Maybe (it'll) give me a chance to make things right," Bachman said. "It caused so much damage in my life in so many different ways. I figured maybe this would give me a chance to settle some things."
New Jersey's push for expanding the statute of limitations gained momentum from last year's release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that catalogued the experiences of thousands of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the church's cover-up of the scandal.
Many states have overhauled their criminal and civil statutes of limitations in the last 10 or 15 years, but just a handful including California, Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota have created so-called lookback windows for lawsuits. New York enacted a bill earlier this year that creates a window similar to the one in New Jersey.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts have both already been inundated with sexual abuse lawsuits that were filed when similar laws were passed in other states. The church opposed the law change in New Jersey, saying it wanted to push back the date it became effective. But those two organizations are far from the only defendants.
Attorneys Jay Mascolo and Jason Amala represent about 40 defendants who are set to file lawsuits in New Jersey. They said their clients mostly allege abuse at the hands of people associated with the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts, but that about a quarter of the suits involve other institutions.
Attorney Robert Fuggi said a key component of the law is that it removes an earlier provision that held a person acting in loco parentis, or "in place of a parent," could only be liable if the abuse occurred "within the household."
That will make it easier to take legal action against public schools, Fuggi said. It could help revive a suit brought by one of his clients who claimed her high school's assistant band director repeatedly sexually assaulted her in 2004. A state appeals court dismissed that case, ruling the "household" provision didn't apply to public schools.
"I think you're going to see substantially more claims against public schools than ever before," said Fuggi, who said he has prepared several lawsuits alleging sexual abuse at a restaurant, casino, church, high school and hospital.
The new law has prompted some criticism that the two-year window exposes institutions to retroactive claims that could sink organizations whose current employees are not implicated and whose work could be upended by hefty damages.
Alida Kass, the president and chief counsel of the New Jersey Civil Justice Institute, which advocates against lawsuit abuse, opposed the legislation because it lacked amendments to target only predators and institutions that were complicit in the alleged crimes.
"There is at least a measure of justice in holding an organization to account, even years later, for their willful misdeeds," she said. "(But) we are not talking about charities that didn't to do background checks when no one was doing background checks, or that failed to have as-yet unheard of protocols, or missed the warning signs that we now take for granted."