Assembly Bill 218: The Lookback Window
In 2019, California passed a new law that opened up a three-year window for child sexual assault survivors to sue their abusers. Under Assembly Bill 218, authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, complainants could now file sexual assault claims that had exceeded the statute of limitations. This so-called “lookback window” began on January 1, 2020, and is coming to an end this year on December 31, 2022.
Before the bill was signed into law, an action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse had to be commenced within eight years of when the plaintiff turned 18 years of age, or within three years of the date that the plaintiff discovered or reasonably should have discovered that his or her injury was caused by sexual abuse, whichever occurred later. In addition, previous law prohibited those actions from being commenced after the plaintiff’s 26th birthday and banned confidentiality provisions within a settlement agreement arising from a childhood sexual abuse claim.
Assembly Bill 218, on the other hand, increased the time limit for commencing an action to 22 years from when the plaintiff turned 18, or within five years of the date that the plaintiff discovered or reasonably should have discovered that his or her injury was caused by sexual abuse. In other words, the law now allows people under the age of 40 to file complaints without limitations. For plaintiffs older than 40, they must obtain a mental health evaluation through an attorney that finds that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the plaintiff had been subject to childhood sexual abuse. Furthermore, the bill expanded the definition of childhood sexual abuse, referring to it instead as childhood sexual assault. Finally, the bill provided for the recovery of up to treble damages, meaning triple the amount of actual or compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff, against certain defendants, and revived time-lapsed claims in certain circumstances.
Bill Gives Rise to Hundreds of New Lawsuits
As California’s three-year lookback window comes to an end this year, the amount of new lawsuits is mounting. According to lawyers involved in these cases, over 800 people are currently in the process of filing a lawsuit to beat the December 31 deadline. Many of these cases are against institutions that cater to youth, including Boy Scouts of America, the Salvation Army, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, as well as private and public schools. Perhaps the institution facing the greatest amount of lawsuits is the Catholic Church. Since January 2020, at least 750 lawsuits have been filed against Catholic dioceses.
This is not the first time a lookback window has led to a drastic increase in lawsuits. In 2002, California passed a similar law creating a year-long window for people to file such claims. The following year, over 850 people sued the Catholic church, and another 150 sued other religious institutions and the Boy Scouts of America. Now, as they face a second extension of the statute of limitations and hundreds of new lawsuits, nine Catholic bishops are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the lookback window law as unconstitutional.
However, it is unlikely that the Catholic Church will succeed. Across the U.S., lookback windows have undergone multiple legal challenges and survived. In 2019, 14 states amended their laws to allow more time to bring child sexual abuse claims, and eight states reopened the window for claims that had passed the statute of limitations. As such, we can expect to see a continuing rise in these lawsuits through the end of this year.
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