REGION — Among the horde of new laws enacted on Jan. 1 is one being roundly hailed for its attention to victims of sexual assault.
Assembly Bill 218 extends the timeline for victims of childhood sexual assault to file civil lawsuits until age 40 or five years from discovery of the abuse. The previous limit was age 26 or within three years of discovery of abuse.
San Diego-based attorney Steve Estey, who specializes in sexual abuse and assault cases, said the new law is a welcome change, but noted there will be challenges for victims. He said it will be difficult for many cases to be resolved in court because the evidence after 30 or 40 years is scant. Also, those involved may have died, memories fade and unless a report of “some kind” was filed, it could be challenging to win in court, Estey said.
He said the bill’s author, Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), was targeting institutions such as the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, USA Swimming and other large entities who may have covered up claims of abuse.
“Many times when it happens, they are younger and they’re afraid that people won’t believe them,” Estey said of victims. “There’s a lot of shame that goes along with it. They’ll be in their 30s or 40s and the statute of limitations have long passed.”
Also, the bill expands the definition of childhood sexual abuse to childhood sexual assault, making it easier to bring a claim, according to a report in the Orange County Register.
Estey, who has a number of active cases against Uber and Lyft for alleged abuses committed by some drivers, said AB 218 allows for those responsible for the crimes to be held accountable.
“It’s going to affect the Catholic Church probably the most,” he added. “It’s going to pinch the Catholic Church, probably more than any other entity in California.”
Rancho Santa Fe attorney Carla DiMare said there is no monetary cap on how much a plaintiff can recover if they file a civil lawsuit. However, she said there should be caps on how much you can recover from a school when the school only acted negligently, not intentionally.
Still, DiMare welcomes many of the new changes to the law.
“Just like in New York, there will be a large influx of childhood sexual abuse cases for California state and federal courts to process, and I am confident they will be ready to give these victims a voice and hopefully justice,” she said.
As for school districts, though, the new law brings many concerns of witnesses counts, a lack of records, police reports, arbitrary dates or insurance coverage at the time of the alleged abuse, said Steve Salvati, executive director of the San Diego County Schools Risk Management Joint Powers Authority.
The JPA provides liability insurance coverage for districts in the county holding a layer of liability coverage up to $1 million. They also work with outside carriers for more coverage, which includes $4 million and a statewide pool of $50 million, Salvati said.
Estey said it will be difficult to resurrect cases against school districts unless there is a conviction or reports discovered, especially for those incidents that happened decades ago.
Others are concerned about the potential financial blowback AB 218 sets up. A number of government agencies are exempted, but not school districts, which are on edge according to Salvati.
“There are going to be more lawsuits occurring for a given period of time,” he said. “There is a three-year period starting Jan. 1 and goes until 2023, and that three-year period has virtually no statute of limitations. It also allows a lawsuit to be revived that was dismissed because it was beyond the previous statute of limitations.”
San Diego-based legal investigator Tonya Sabo, who has worked cases for defendants and plaintiffs regarding sexual abuse, said the intent of the law was more based on bigger organizations such as the Church or Boy Scouts of America.
However, she disagreed with Estey’s assessment of the difficulty, saying law firms are already using targeting advertising to find potential victims of abuse. Sabo said it could open up the door for false allegations.
“There’s no going back for the everyday person,” Sabo said. “How do you go back 20, 30 or 40 years and prove this teacher didn’t touch this kid? We are now a society where we assume we can always go back and get a receipt. They just have to show this person was around someone.”
California joins New York and New Jersey, which passed similar laws last year, and other states such as Maine, Delaware and Utah, which have completely abolished civil statutes of limitations in these kinds of cases.