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Supreme Court of New Jersey Outlines Time Limit for Child Sex Abuse Victims to Seek "Justice"

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 12, 2009 9:32 AM

Victims of child abuse often have to face years of, if not lifelong, consequences from child abuse. A decision out of the Supreme Court of New Jersey might allow for victims of child abuse in that state to obtain some justice and compensation via the court system, even if the criminal justice system may not do the same.

The case involved the time limit for bringing lawsuits against a defendant under the state's Child Sexual Abuse Act. The unidentified plaintiff alleged that Kenneth Voytac, his stepfather, sexually abused him on numerous occasions starting about 20 years ago (when plaintiff was about 10 years old). However, although he was aware of the incidents, he didn't bring suit until much later, when he claims to have made a connection between the abuse and his psychological injuries.

Generally, each state's laws set time limits called "statutes of limitations" for bringing various types of lawsuits, including those alleging physical and/or emotional injury. The trial court found that plaintiff in this case didn't bring his lawsuit in a timely manner, and dismissed his complaint. However, in its decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey outlined a test for determining whether a victim of childhood sexual abuse has brought their lawsuit under the Act too late.

Under this test, a trial court must first figure out when "a reasonable person" that was the victim of childhood abuse "would discover that the defendant's conduct caused him or her injury." For this part, it's not the actual victim's point of view that counts. A court is simply asking when a reasonable person would have found out they'd been injured. If a lawsuit is brought within two years of that date, it's going to be on time.

If, however, it's not, then a trial court still has to ask whether the time limit should be extended because of "the plaintiff's mental state, duress by the defendant, or any other equitable grounds". Because this last inquiry is made from a plaintiff's point of view (and not a fictional "reasonable person"), it gives courts some leeway to accept child abuse suits that would have otherwise been too late.

As a sidenote, time limits for bringing most other types of lawsuits are generally far shorter than New Jersey's law expanding the statute of limitations on child abuse cases. The basis for laws allowing child abuse suits to be brought later on in life can be the acknowledgment that sometimes the injuries and effects of childhood sexual abuse are latent in nature, and may only be discovered or understood long after the underlying crimes have been committed.

The decision may impact clergy sexual abuse cases and the liability to which churches are exposed to under this interpretation of the time limits for sexual abuse suits. As for plaintiff's case against Voytac, it got sent back to the trial court for reconsideration of its ruling under the new test.

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