As I have discussed several times in Discussing the Law: The Online Edition, for most lawsuits, there is a statute of limitations, which tells the plaintiff to file the suit within a specified time or lose the claim. For most, but not all, of these laws, the courts or the legislature have specified that the limitations period does not begin until the plaintiff discovers, or should discover, the existence of his or her claim. A recent case from Oregon applying the discovery principle illustrates the willingness of the courts to allow significant leeway to plaintiffs in unusually offensive situations.
Seven former students, now ranging in age from their mid-40s to mid-50’s, sued a school district and a teacher for sexual abuse. The defendants argued that the complaint should be thrown out because it was filed after the statute of limitations (for suits against a government body, two years) had expired. Because the defendants’ request to throw out the case was filed in direct response to the complaint, the courts looked at the case assuming that the complaint was accurate in its statement of what happened and asked whether, under the law, the complaint still didn’t include enough information for the plaintiffs to win the case under any interpretation.
The plaintiffs claimed that the teacher had groomed them and obtained the confidence of their parents to allow him to direct them, which led to their being instructed to fondle the teacher on multiple occasions. They claimed that they had not recognized the situation as wrong until between 2006 and 2008, and they filed suit in 2008, within two years of their recognition.
In an earlier case, the Oregon Supreme Court had ruled that the statute of limitations for claims against the government starts to run when the plaintiff had a reasonable chance to discover the injury and identify the defendant. In another case, the word “injury” in a similar statute of limitations had been read to cover three issues; harm, causation, and wrongful conduct. The court applied both of these rulings in the new case.
The court analyzed the sexual abuse claim as essentially accusing the teacher of battery. Civil battery (as opposed to criminal assault) can be either a harmful touching (such as a blow) or an offensive one. This led to the question of whether – and when – the plaintiffs did, or should have, recognized the abuse as offensive. The court decided that in light of the similarity of the abuse to other touching alleged in the teacher’s grooming process and his obtaining the plaintiffs’ trust, they might not have recognized the offensiveness at the time, and therefore they didn’t have to file their suit at the time.
If you think you have discovered an old injury, and you think it’s something that you shouldn’t have discovered until now, be ready to discuss with a lawyer all of the reasons why you shouldn’t have discovered it. But be aware that not all statutes of limitation are treated the same, and that some states aren’t as lenient as Oregon in allowing extended time to discover the wrong.