Statute of Limitations: Sexual Abuse of Minor

By Theodore Postel
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
June 20, 2000

A limitation period commences when plaintiff knows he or she has been injured, rather than when the full extent of the injuries is known. Illinois Appellate Court reversed.

Clay v. Kuhl, Illinois Supreme Court. 189 Ill.2d 603, 727 N.E.2d 217, 244 Ill.Dec. 918 (2000).

The plaintiff, Theresa Clay, brought the present action in the Kane County Circuit Court, alleging that defendant, Brother Richard Kuhl, sexually abused her while she was a minor. The plaintiff also asserted that the religious order to which Brother Kuhl belonged -- defendant Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart -- had notice of similar misconduct allegedly committed by Kuhl yet failed to take any steps to prevent the abuse charged here from occurring.

The defendants argued that the plaintiff's action was barred within two years of the time after she reached the age of 18, as provided by statute (if plaintiff is a minor when the cause of action accrues, then he or she may bring the action within 2 years after the person attains the age of 18 years"). The plaintiff was born in 1964, and under the defendants' reasoning, the present action would have been barred in 1984.

In the alternative, the defendants contended that, even if the common-law discovery rule does apply in this case, the plaintiff's action must still be considered untimely, for she knew of her injury and cause of action long before she finally brought suit.

The plaintiff, in response, argued that the common-law discovery rule applies in these circumstances and, moreover, that the allegations in her complaint demonstrate that she brought suit within two years of the time she discovered the injury.

The Circuit Court dismissed the action on motion of the defendants, agreeing with the defendants that the plaintiff's complaint was untimely. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed and remanded the cause for further proceedings (301 Ill.App.3d 694).

On further appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Benjamin K. Miller, with Justices Charles E. Freeman and Moses W. Harrison II dissenting, ruled as follows:

The plaintiff contends that application of the discovery rule is necessary in this case, given the allegations in the complaint that she did not realize the existence of her injury until much later. Under the discovery rule, a party's cause of action accrues when the party knows or reasonably should know of an injury and that the injury was wrongfully caused...

The plaintiff, in her third amended complaint, alleged that it was not until June 1994 that she realized that the sexual encounters with Kuhl had caused her injuries.' The plaintiff further alleged that the abuse was not caused by force or violence and the injuries were not caused immediately but evolved with the overlay of life experience. At the time the abuse occurred, she did not know it was abnormal behavior.'...

The issue whether an action was brought within the time allowed by the discovery rule is generally resolved as a question of fact. ... The question may be determined as a matter of law, however, when the answer is clear from the pleadings. ... We believe that the circumstances alleged in this case allow this issue to be resolved as a matter of law.

Examining the plaintiff's third amended complaint, we conclude that the present action is untimely under the discovery rule. In the present case, the allegations of the plaintiff's complaint make it clear that the plaintiff had sufficient information about her injury and its cause to require her to bring suit long before the date of discovery alleged in the complaint...

Given the allegations in the third amended complaint, which show that the plaintiff was always aware of the misconduct charged, and the absence of any contrary assertion that the plaintiff repressed memories of the abuse, we believe that the plaintiff's action must be considered untimely under the discovery rule.

We make no determination here whether the discovery rule would toll the running of the limitations period in a case alleging repressed memories of abuse. See Johnson v. Johnson, 701 F.Supp. 1363 (N.E.Ill. 1988) (applying discovery rule in case alleging delayed recollection of childhood sexual abuse).

The plaintiff contends, however, that her injuries were latent to some extent and did not fully manifest themselves until years after the abuse occurred. We do not believe that the plaintiff's alleged failure to fully discover the nature of her injuries is sufficient to delay the running of the limitations period. There is no requirement that a plaintiff must know the full extent of his or her injuries before suit must be brought under the applicable statute of limitations...

However, a plaintiff's failure to learn the full extent of the injuries caused by the defendant's acts will not toll the statute of limitations. Accepting the plaintiff's argument in support of delayed discovery of the injury would improperly create a subjective standard by which accrual of a cause of action would have to be measured...

For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Appellate Court is reversed, and the judgment of the Circuit Court of Kane County is affirmed."

Julie L. Trester and Ronald J. Sutter of Querrey & Harrow Ltd. of Chicago for appellant Brother Richard Kuhl.

Cremer, Kopon, Shaughnessy & Spina of Chicago (Andrew Kopon Jr. and Michael A. Airdo of counsel), for appellant Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.

Joseph G. Klest of Schaumburg (Kevin E. Bry of Franklin Park of counsel) for appellee.

Karen L. Kendall, Brad A. Elward, Craig L. Unrath, Timothy L. Bertschy and Patricia M. Gibson, all of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen of Peoria, for amicus curiae Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel.

Thomas A. Pavlinic, of Annapolis, Md., for amicus curiae False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

Cynthia Grant Bowman of Chicago (Elizabeth Mertz of counsel) for amici curiae Alliance for the Rights of Children, et al.


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