NJ looks to extend time limits on sexual abuse lawsuits
TRENTON — Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy have reached agreement on legislation that will extend the statute of limitations for victims of sexual assault to file civil lawsuits in New Jersey.
Child victims of sexual abuse will have until at least age 55 to bring a civil case. Adult victims will have seven years. Cases that were previously not allowed because of the current two-year limit on lawsuits will be allowed to be filed through the end of November 2021.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, has been advocating to expand the civil statute of limitations for nearly a decade. He said the bill will allow victims to sue both the individual perpetrator and any liable institution and take effect Dec. 1.
“It is my greatest hope that when my colleagues hear the stories of suffering and trauma that victims and survivors have endured, they will recognize, immediately, the urgency of passing this legislation,” Vitale said. “We need to give victims more time to bring their cases and we need to do it now. Not one more victim should be turned away and denied their day in court.”
Gov. Phil Murphy expressed support for the legislation.
"Victims of sexual abuse, especially those victimized in childhood, deserve to find doors held open for them as they seek justice against their abusers,” Murphy said.
Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she would prefer that there not be any limit on the civil statute of limitations but that expanding it is “a common sense, long overdue reform.”
“This certainly moves us in the right direction and continues to put New Jersey in the forefront when it comes to creating policy and laws that are responsive to the particular impact of this crime,” Teffenhart said.
“At this point in time, it seems so glaringly obvious that a two-year civil statute of limitations is insufficient, and we are thrilled about the opportunity of finally expanding pathways to justice for more survivors,” she said.
The bill will be voted on at a March 7 hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is headed by a sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union. Vitale said he looks forward to its approved by the full Senate before the budget break, which would mean a vote on March 14 or 25.
The announcement comes a day after lists of priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse dating back to the 1940s was released by the five Catholic dioceses in New Jersey, and Scutari made reference to that in discussing the bill.
“This is an important piece of legislation. The article yesterday is just more evidence of why this bill is important – important to not only these families but for quite frankly the survival of the church,” Scutari said. “I mean, I think we need to bring some absolute responsibility to what’s gone on there and give some justice to the people that have suffered at the hands.”
Dioceses in New Jersey have paid around $50 million in settlements to victims of sexual abuse who filed lawsuits, said Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference. He said the dioceses established a victims compensation program last November as an alternative to litigation that carry a significantly lower level of proof and corroboration that required in court.
Brannigan indicated the Catholic Conference supports ending the statute of limitations as it relates to institutions going forward, but not retroactively.
"We fully support the elimination of the statute of limitations prospectively for both perpetrators and institutions," he said. "We support the elimination of the statute of limitations retroactively for perpetrators, which would address Sen. Joseph Vitale’s frequent comment about the need to hold accountable the 95 percent of perpetrators who are not clergy."
The seven-year statute of limitations for bringing a civil case would start from the time a person discovers or remembers their abuse, if that is later than the ordinary time limits.
“We know how difficult it can be to come forward for victims of sexual assault. Often survivors need time to understand and even fully remember, what were the most traumatic moments in their life,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said he supports the bill. Three other Republicans joining Bramnick at an unrelated news conference said they did as well.
“What a trauma victim has gone through with sexual abuse is one of the most horrific experiences you can have in life, and the people who are responsible for that, assuming there’s proof, should be held responsible,” Bramnick said.