The Wall Street Journal
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
May 30, 2013
Democrats and the tort bar target the Catholic Church.
Democrats have a supermajority in the California legislature, and one fear is that they’ll use it to punish their political enemies. Consider the bill moving fast in the legislature to suspend California’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse torts and expose nonprofits to unlimited litigation.
The main targets are two liberal betes noires:the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church, which is still paying off debts from claims filed in 2003 when the legislature suspended the statute of limitations for a year. Nearly 1,000 claims were subsequently filed against the Church, which resulted in damage awards of $1.2 billion. Attorneys in many cases skimmed off more than half in fees.
The claims gusher has since dried up, so lawyers want the legislature to open it again next year. This is necessary, attorneys say, because some adult victims need decades to make a “causal connection” between their childhood abuse and psychological afflictions.
Helping the plaintiffs make these connections will be lawyers like Irwin Zalkin, who thanks to a 2007 settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have got their hands on 30,000 pages of unredacted files that concern efforts to conceal clergy abuses. Mr. Zalkin is lobbying the legislature to scrap the statute of limitations.
Under current law, plaintiffs can file claims against individuals or non-government employers until they’re 26 years old, or alternatively, three years from whenever they discover or “reasonably should have discovered” that their psychological problems were caused by childhood sex abuse.
Democrats now want to give adults who exceed this statute of limitations another chance to file claims next year. All those claims thrown out after the 2003 window because they were stale would also be fair game. This sets up a minefield for nonprofits that aren’t insured against such claims.
Mr. Zalkin told the legislature that nonprofits needn’t worry because most insurers covered claims during the one-year suspension in 2003. However, those claims spiked nonprofit liabilities, so many now self-insure. A couple of stale claims now could bankrupt small, self-insured nonprofits and inflate premiums for commercially insured institutions.
That is why the proposal would exempt government entities including city recreational leagues, public schools and state universities. In other words, private USC or Stanford could be sued if a Jerry Sandusky molested kids in their locker-rooms, but UC-Berkeley and UCLA couldn’t be held liable.
Another kicker: The one-year suspension wouldn’t apply to claims against the actual perpetrators of abuse. So a teacher who committed a heinous abuse 15 years ago couldn’t be sued. But if the abuse occurred at a Catholic school, the Church could be hit up. Public unions wanted immunity for their members, and attorneys figured this was a small concession.
Statutes of limitations exist to protect defendants from miscarriages of justice since witnesses and evidence can disappear with time. Plaintiffs attorneys who claim to be seeking justice for victims are merely seeking to line their own pockets by exploiting public sympathies for victims of horrific abuses. The ultimate victims of this legal shakedown will be nonprofits in California and the people they serve.
The bill squeaked through the Senate this week. Governor Jerry Brown says he’s going to exert some adult supervision on his party, and this would be a good issue to start.
A version of this article appeared May 31, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Sacramento’s Nonprofit Shakedown.
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