LOS ANGELES (CA)
Los Angeles Legal Examiner - Saunders & Walker [Pinellas Park FL]
May 23, 2021
By Joseph H. Saunders
The Catholic Bishops in Northern California had challenged a new law providing for triple damages against any Diocese or organization that covered up childhood sex abuse. In 2019, the California legislature passed a law to provide for a 3-year window for survivors of childhood sex abuse to come forward and sue the priest and the church no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. Part of that law, CCP 340.1, provided for triple damages for cover up. The bishops’ lawyers argued that the triple damages provision in CCP 340.1 was unconstitutional because it imposed a new punishment that was not in place when the cover up conduct actually occurred.
The statute of limitations in California barred most of these cases because the old statute of limitations required that a lawsuit be filed within two years from the abuse. Few children would have been aware of their right to file a lawsuit and the vast majority were so intimidated by Catholic priest abusers that they never told anyone until decades later. This is why the legislature changed the law. The legislature wanted to provide a remedy for this unfairness. The legislature also wanted to provide a punishment of triple damages against a church or organization that covered up abuse or protected child predators. One of the purposes of this punishment was to prevent future child abuse.
Since the new law went into effect in 2020, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against a number of Catholic bishops, dioceses, and orders. These lawsuits have been coordinated together; some in the San Francisco Bay Area, some in Los Angeles, and some in San Diego. My law firm has filed a number of these cases.
The San Francisco Bay Area cases have all been assigned to a judge in Alameda County. On April 29, 2021, the Alameda Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith ruled that the triple damages provision contained in CCP 340.1 was constitutional. Judge Smith wrote a detailed and well-reasoned 51 page opinion explaining her analysis of the law. Lawyers for both sides had the opportunity to file written arguments and to present oral arguments to the judge. I expect this opinion to apply eventually to all the cases in California.
The San Francisco Bay Area cases assigned to Judge Smith are coordinated together in what is referred to as a JCCP. A JCCP in the California courts is a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding. The cases in a JCCP are still individual lawsuits with rights to individual trials. This is not a class action.
However, Judge Smith’s ruling applies to all of the cases in the Bay Area Clergy JCCP which is number JCCP 5108. A motion was filed last week in the Los Angeles Clergy JCCP for the LA judge to take judicial notice of Judge Smith’s ruling. I expect that the Los Angeles and San Diego judges will adopt Judge Smith’s ruling upholding the new law and the triple damages provision.
This new law opening the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse cases will remain open until the end of 2022. After that time, the statute of limitations will again bar older cases from being brought. Therefore, it is important for anyone who is a survivor of childhood sex abuse to contact a lawyer who has experience with these cases to bring a claim or lawsuit as soon as possible.