Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal of Sexual-Abuse Lawsuit

By Janice Gregorson
May 1, 2008

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld a district court decision dismissing claims brought by one woman alleging sexual abuse as a child by a nun with the sisters of St. Francis.

A year ago, Olmsted District Judge Joseph Chase dismissed all of the claims brought by Karen Britten of Chicago.

That decision was appealed by Britten's attorney, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul. The Court of Appeals issued its decision Tuesday.

Britten was one of three women who filed civil lawsuits in 2005 and 2006 claiming they had been repeatedly molested by Sister Benen Kent in the mid-1960s while students in Chicago. At the time, Kent was their piano and music teacher at St. Juliana's parish school in Chicago, they said.

Kent, a member of the Franciscan Sisters, died in 2003, at age 85.

The defense moved for summary judgment in both the Britten case and that of Patricia Schwartz of Eden Prairie. Chase dismissed all of the claims in the Britten suit and some in the Schwartz case.

Anderson appealed the ruling in the Britten case, saying the district court erred in its interpretation of the delayed discovery statute. Under that statute, action for damages based on personal injury caused by sexual abuse must be started within six years of the time a person knew or had reason to know the injury was caused by sexual abuse.

Anderson argued that a victim can't know or have reason to know that he or she had been abused until understanding that the acts were wrongful and thus abusive. The appeals court said Britten's attorney also argued that psychological coping mechanisms, such as shame, guilt and self-blame, and conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are mental disabilities that affect the statute of limitations. In this case, the contention is that while Britten recalled the abuse in 1989, she didn't understand she was a victim until 2002, so the lawsuit was filed within that six-year period.

The Court of Appeals said Britten is asking to apply a subjective standard based on her own mental and emotional state in order to determine whether she should have known that she had been a victim of sexual abuse. The justices said that such a standard has no basis in the law. They found no error in Chase's conclusion that the question under the delayed discovery statute is when a reasonable person knew or had reason to know the acts which constitute the abuse took place. In this case, they said, the evidence overwhelmingly supports a conclusion that Britten knew or should have known she had been sexually abuse when she recalled the abuse in 1989.

The first of the three civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse was filed by Christine Bertrand of Sierre Madre, Calif., in 2005. On March 31, Olmsted District Judge Jodi Williamson dismissed two of the counts alleging the Franciscan Sisters were negligent in their supervision of Kent and that they became aware of problems with Kent but failed to take action. The only count remaining is one alleging vicarious liability, that the Franciscan Sisters are liable under the law for Kent's conduct. A pretrial hearing is set for May 16.



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