Lawmakers extend window for abuse lawsuits, add liable parties
By Derrick DePledge
Star-Advertiser, Apr 25, 2014
Giving victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to seek justice, state lawmakers agreed Thursday on a bill that would extend a unique window to file lawsuits for another two years and include the state and counties among the potentially liable.
The state had lifted the statute of limitations and had given victims a two-year window which closed Thursday to bring civil claims against their alleged abusers and churches, private organizations and businesses that were grossly negligent.
State House and Senate negotiators agreed to extend that window for an additional two years, until April 24, 2016, after concluding that many victims were not sufficiently aware of the opportunity and deserved more time.
Lawmakers also added the state and counties to the entities that could be held liable for abuse, arguing that it is not fair to shield the state from financial responsibility.
Senate Bill 2687 is scheduled for final votes next week before the session adjourns.
Over the past few weeks, attorneys for victims have filed a flurry of lawsuits, fearing that the window might be closed forever Thursday. The suits include sexual abuse claims against Marc Alexander, a former vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, and Bryan Singer, director of the “X-Men” films.
Attorneys for both men have denied the allegations.
Victims have brought dozens of lawsuits over the past two years, many against clergy and churches.
“I think it really says that we as a state are trying to allow these victims their day in court,” said Sen. Maile Shimabukuro (D, Kalaeloa-Waianae-Makaha).
Lawmakers also agreed Thursday on House Bill 2034, which would lift the statute of limitations entirely on prosecutions for first- and second-degree sexual assault and for the continuous sexual assault of a minor under 14. Lawmakers decided that the sex crimes are so heinous, they should be treated similarly to murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and murder-for-hire, the only other crimes under state law with no statute of limitations.
“I know, personally, people who have either killed themselves because of it or haven’t been able to live their life because of it,” said an emotional Rep. Mele Carroll (D, Lanai-Molokai-Paia-Hana), who likened the sex crimes to murder “because you’re taking their life away, and their life is never the same and they have to constantly work at making life as normal as possible.”
Gov. Neil Abercrombie had vetoed a bill in 2011 that would have opened a window to file lawsuits over sexual abuse when the statute of limitations had expired, in part because the state and counties were included, which could have exposed the state to unknown financial liability. Abercrombie signed a similar bill into law in 2012 after the state and counties were excluded.
The state attorney general’s office said the new bill is under consideration.
“We do have concerns about that because we don’t take waiving sovereign immunity lightly,” Deputy Attorney General Caron Inagaki said of the legal doctrine that can shield states from lawsuits.
Lawmakers said it is unfair to draw a legal distinction on liability for sexual abuse that occurs at a public school, for example, and a private Catholic school.
“And to say that because a state employee assaulted you as a youth, you don’t have any recourse, whereas if a private-sector person assaulted you as a youth, you do, just isn’t fair,” said Rep. Karl Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Iwilei-Kalihi).
The Rev. Gary Secor, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, said the church opposes extending the window to file civil lawsuits over sexual abuse. The church and others have complained about the potential difficulty in defending against decades-old claims where the alleged abusers may have died, witnesses may no longer be available and records may have been lost or destroyed.
But if the bill is going to pass, Secor said, the church supports including the state and counties among the potentially liable as a matter of fairness.