The sexual abuse of minors is not only a gravely serious criminal act, it is also grounds upon which victims may seek damages in civil court. In many cases, it is not only the offender who is named, but also the company or institution at which the alleged abuser was employed. This is for a number of reasons, including:
- Employers may be vicariously liable for the wrongs of employees;
- These entities also separately owed a fiduciary duty to the victim.
An example would be a lawsuit against a school district for abuse suffered by a student from a coach on school grounds. The school would be vicariously liable for the actions of its employee, but it also separately owes a direct duty to adequately supervise and protect the student.
While almost all tort claims have a statute of limitations of four years in Florida (meaning lawsuits have to be filed within that window from the date of the last alleged incident of abuse), the legislature and courts have recognized that victims in these cases should be afforded special exception in certain instances.
F.S. 95.11(7) and (9) allow for:
- Claims pertaining to intentional torts based on abuse or incest to be commenced within 7 years of the age of majority, within 4 years of the time the injured person leaves the dependency of the abuser or within 4 years of the time the injury and its causal relationship between the injury and abuse were discovered.
- Claims pertaining to an act that violates F.S. 794.011 involving sexual battery of a victim under the age of 16 may be commenced at any time. This provision applies only to acts occurring on or before July 1, 2010 that otherwise would have been time-barred.
The reason the laws were written this way is because many victims of sexual trauma may repress those memories – only to realize them years later – or they may be in fear of their abuser even for some time after leaving their dependency.
While this may leave the door open for many older cases, it’s not absolute.
In the recent case of Firestone v. Temple Beth Shalom, before Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, plaintiff alleged she was sexually abused while she was a minor by a teacher employed by the defendant temple. This abuse allegedly occurred in 1971 and 1972. Forty years later, plaintiff filed her lawsuit against defendant under a number of legal theories. These were eventually reduced to two:
- The temple was vicariously liable for the actions of its employee per the doctrine of respondeat superior;
- The defendant violated its duty of care to her as a student.
Although these claims would normally be barred under a four-year statute of limitations, she asserted the traumatic nature of the abuse resulted in her suffering repressed memory syndrome. She had no memory of the abuse until 2009, and her complaint was filed in 2013 – within four years of when the memories resurfaced.
Defense moved for summary judgment on grounds the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. Trial court granted the motion and plaintiff appealed. The appeals court stated it had no choice but to affirm.
This is because while the action is based on an intentional tort of abuse, plaintiff is not suing the teacher directly. She is instead suing the school for vicarious liability and breach of fiduciary duty, which in and of themselves are not intentional torts. Secondly, while her repressed memory syndrome would toll the statute of limitations, it’s only applicable to abuse cases that occurred on or after July 1, 2010. The abuse in this case reportedly occurred long before.
These cases are often difficult and arduous for the plaintiff. While our Fort Myers sexual abuse attorneys are dedicated to the dogged pursuit of justice for child sexual assault victims, we also know these cases have to be carefully handled in order to spare the victim unnecessary strife.
Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.
Firestone v. Temple Beth Shalom, Jan. 20, 2016, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal
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Galvan v. Memorial Hermann Hosp. Sys. – Not All Hospital Injuries are Created Equal, Jan. 14, 2016, Fort Myers Injury Lawyer Blog