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DC Lawmakers Sign Sexual Abuse Amendment Act to Expand Statute of Limitations in Criminal Prosecutions & Civil Claims, Allow Cases Barred by Previous Time Restrictions to Move Forward

On Wednesday, January 23, 2019, District of Columbia lawmakers signed a proposed bill into law to limit restrictions on prosecuting sexual abuse offenders, and enable more survivors to come forward with their claims. The bill (D.C. Act 22-593) is being viewed as a major victory by victims’ advocates, and brings D.C.’s policies more closely in line with those in Maryland and Virginia, as well as a number of other states across the country

About the DC Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Amendment Act

The “Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Amendment Act of 2018,” is hailed as a long-overdue reform of D.C.’s restrictive laws barring criminal prosecutions and civil liability in matters of sexual abuse if a certain amount of time has passed since the abuse took place, and creates new policies which better benefit victims. A statute of limitations, or “SOL” for short, is the maximum time after an event occurred when legal proceedings may be initiated under the applicable law.

Changes under the Act will have a sweeping impact on the way both criminal and civil cases involving sexual abuse are handled in the District, and apply to every sexual abuse claim for which the SOL has not yet expired, as well as some claims for which the SOL has expired for just a small window of time.

Below are a few important details about the Act and its major components.

Criminal Prosecution: DC’s Sex Abuse Statute of Limitations Eliminated

Unlike Maryland, Virginia, and many other states that have no time limit for when individuals accused of sexual abuse can be criminally charged (similar to other serious crimes like murder), the District previously employed a 15-year SOL for the criminal prosecution of most sexual abuse cases. Under the new Act, there will be no time limit by which a case must be brought for many sexual abuse offenses, including:

  • First, second, third, and fourth-degree sexual abuse
  • First- and second-degree child sexual abuse / sexual abuse of a minor
  • First- and second-degree sexual abuse of a secondary education student
  • First-and second-degree sexual abuse of a patient, client, or ward

The Act also requires police to keep evidence related to certain sex crimes for 65 years from the date of first reporting, eliminates the practice of using fictitious name indictments, and extends the statute of limitations for prosecuting those who fail to report child abuse and neglect as required by law – an issue advocates say allows many offenders to go unpunished and able to abuse others, and something that has been a particular scourge in high profiles cases like the Penn State - Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the Catholic Church’s decades of concealment and cover-ups.

Civil Sexual Abuse Lawsuits: More Time for Survivors to Step Forward

One of the most important aspects of the Act is that it goes beyond extending the statute of limitations in criminal sex abuse cases, which may provide victims with a sense of justice when their abusers are convicted and held accountable for their crimes, but do little to provide them with a viable source of compensation for the profound damages, pain and suffering, and emotional injuries they’ve incurred as a result.

Under the previous law and its restrictive time limits, many survivors, and especially those abused as children and minors, were often barred or faced difficulties when bringing civil sexual abuse lawsuits. For example, the old law required victims abused as minors to bring claims within 7 years from when they turned 18, or, in the case of repressed memories of the abuse,3 years from when they knew, or reasonably should have known, of any act that would be considered abuse. For those abused as adults, the statute of limitations was just 3 years from the date they knew, or reasonably should have known, of any abusive act.

Changes under the new Act, which updates section 12-301 of the DC Official Code and extends the civil statute of limitations for victims to recover damages arising from sexual abuse:

  • Victims under 35 – In cases where sexual abuse occurred when the victim was less than 35 years old, they can bring civil claims for compensation any time up to the age of 40, OR 5 years from when they knew or reasonably should have known of a sexually abusive act, whichever is later.
  • Victims 35 or older – In cases where victims were 35 years of age or older, they may bring civil claims within 5 years from when they knew or should have known of the abusive act.
  • 2-year revival period – In addition to extending the SOL for civil sex abuse claims, the Act also creates a 2-year “revival period” for claims that have already expired under the old statute of limitations. That means there is now a 2-year window in which victims can bring previously barred claims now allowed under the new statute of limitations.

A Victory for Survivors & The Journey Ahead

As a law firm that has been fighting for victims and survivors across Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland for over 45 years, Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C. applauds local lawmakers on passing meaningful legislation. The Act now aligns DC’s sexual abuse policies more closely with those in other more “victim-supportive” states, and is representative of the tremendous outpouring of support, advocacy, and activism we have seen in recent years.

The power of those efforts cannot be understated, and legislative changes like those enacted in DC can be traced to the incendiary spark of things like the #MeToo movement, the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics / MSU sex abuse scandals, and other high profile sexual abuse and sexual assault cases – including cases handled by our firm’s own attorneys, such as:

  • Partner Joseph Cammarata’s representation of seven women in a defamation lawsuit against Bill Cosby, recently convicted of sexual assault and now imprisoned.
  • Partner Cammarata’s representation of Paula Jones in a sexual harassment lawsuit, which precipitated Clinton’s impeachment and has gained renewed interest and relevancy.
  • Our firm’s co-counsel representation of numerous women who were victimized by local DC Rabbi Bernard Freundel, who was also recently convicted and is now incarcerated.

DC’s new sex abuse laws, and other pending initiatives like it across the country, are major victories for victims and survivors, and they should be celebrated. However, using those laws to effectively bring these claims in civil court, and prevail, is a difficult undertaking. These matters demand the dedication of knowledgeable and experienced advocates– and our civil trial lawyers at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C. are passionate about being those advocates for clients throughout the region.

If you would like more information about DC’s Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Amendment Act and how it may impact your potential claim, or if you wish to discuss your rights and options for starting your legal journey, our team is here to help. Contact us online, or call (202) 644-8303.