PROVIDENCE — The House Judiciary Committee met on Thursday, March 16, to discuss R.I. House Bill No. 5510, sponsored by State Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (District 33-Narragansett, South Kingstown), which proposes to eliminate the statute of limitations in cases pertaining to those who were sexually abused as minors to bring a civil lawsuit. This bill would eliminate any statute of limitations and apply it retroactively in such cases.
According to the proposed bill, An Act Related to Courts and Civil Procedures — Procedure Generally — Causes of Action, “all claim or cause of action brought against any party for recovery of damages for injury suffered as a result of sexual abuse shall not be subject to any statute of limitations, regardless of whether the claim may have lapsed or was time-barred under previous versions of the general law.”
The bill allows for legal action to be taken against those who perpetuated the sexual abuse, as well as those who by their negligence failed to properly supervise or prevent such abuse, failed to properly report it, or actively concealed it.
Those testifying in favor of the bill included alleged sexual abuse victims including the sponsor’s sister, Ann Hagan Webb, as well as plaintiffs and their attorney in current lawsuits. The R.I. Attorney General, Peter Neronha, also submitted testimony in favor of the legislation.
Opponents of the proposed bill assert that it would create a series of unfair legal conditions for defendants in cases of sexual misconduct.
The RI ACLU said the bill “establishes a dangerous precedent for the due process rights of Civil defendants.”
They further testified: “Statutes of limitation serve an important purpose. They ensure that evidence is relatively fresh, and they recognize that as time passes, it becomes much harder for a person to mount a defense. Memories fade, and exculpatory evidence that a person has no chance to recover ceases to exist. To ask a person to defend him or herself against a lawsuit like this fifty years or more after the fact imposes enormous challenges. While we recognize that the same is largely true 35 years after the fact as well, bootstrapping that long statute of limitations to defend a complete repeal is a qualitative, as well as quantitative, change in the law that should be resisted.”
Father Bernard A. Healey, the director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, noted how the Diocese of Providence supported a bill passed in 2019 that would extend the statute of limitations in such cases to 35 years.
However, he noted that eliminating all statutes of limitations “would remove and undermine all legal principles which promote fairness and equity.”
Father Healey suggested that a complete removal of all statutes of limitations “would be violative of constitutional due process,” describing the bill as proposing what he describes as “extreme measures” in dealing with the underlying social, legal and psychological issues surrounding sexual harassment.
There were others who also took issue with the legal ramifications of the bill including The American Property Casualty Insurance Association and the American Tort Reform Association.
Christopher Appel, representing the American Tort Reform Association, raised concerns, noting that if the statute of limitations is completely erased, a large amount of time may have elapsed, during which period relevant records or evidence may have been destroyed or discarded, witnesses have died, or the defendant has died and is therefore no longer able to defend themself.
“In these cases, there may be no doubt that the plaintiff has experienced horrific abuse,” Appel noted. “The question that will be difficult or impossible to decide, however, is whether decades ago an organization should have detected the abuse or could have had additional policies or practices in place that might have presented or stopped a hidden predator.”
The bill was held for further study.