A woman who alleges that Bill Cosby sexually abused her while she was a minor has recently filed a lawsuit against the celebrity in a Los Angeles area court. In the suit, the victim alleges that Cosby sexually abused her when she was 16 years old, around approximately 1974.
This suit – in addition to the numerous reports made by other victims of Cosby’s attacks – has led many to wonder: can a victim really sue in 2014 for sexual abuse that occurred nearly 40 years ago?
The answer is, often, yes.
In a nutshell, statutes of limitation operate to limit the amount of time that a person complaining of a particular harm has to bring an action against the alleged defendant. Statutes of limitation are codified in state and federal laws, and typically allow a plaintiff sometime between one to six years to file suit.
The statute of limitations for any particular action will vary by jurisdiction. However, many states now have special extended statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse.
For example, Oregon has a very progressive version of this type of statute. ORS 12.117 provides that a victim of child sexual abuse may file suit anytime before s/he turns 40 years old, or in some circumstances, after s/he has turned 40 years old, so long as s/he files within five years after discovering the “causal connection between the injury and the child abuse[.]”
The purpose of these special statutes of limitation is to take into account the various psychological and emotional barriers that victims of child sexual abuse often experience, both as children and later in their lives as adults.
Many factors may influence a victim’s ability to understand the nature of what has happened to them. A child may not be able to comprehend that the touching is “bad,” as the abuse might have involved pleasurable physical sensations, and/or the victim may simply be too young to understand sexuality. In addition, the perpetrator is often a family member, or someone the victim knows or trusts. In these situations – or any where the perpetrator is in a situation of power and authority over the child – the victim may fear losing their relationship with the perpetrator, or may fear that they (or their family members/friends) may be harmed by the perpetrator.
These types of effects and circumstances can result in confusion, dissociation, or a number of other experiences, which may, in turn, make it difficult for an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse to look back on the experience and see it for what it was (i.e. abuse). These are just a few examples of the various ways in which a victim of childhood sexual abuse might not be able to come to terms with the abuse until 10, 20, or 40 years later.
Some might argue that this is unfair to potential defendants, as the claims may be “too old”; however, our legal system has effective means of weeding out unsubstantiated or unmeritorious claims. If there is not enough evidence to substantiate a claim (because the case is too old, or for any other reason), the case will not go forward. These processes will run their course, and as such, fear of the mere possibility of “unfairness” to the potential defendant does not outweigh the unfairness that would result in barring a victim from alleging the claim in the first place. Such is the purpose and nature of our justice system.
Statutes of limitation similar to that of Oregon take these various issues into consideration.
Bear in mind, however, that not all state statutes of limitation pertaining to child sexual abuse are as progressive as Oregon’s, and even Oregon’s statute has restrictions and parameters developed through case law.
If you have been sexually abused and would like to speak with us confidentially regarding a potential civil claim and the timeliness of bringing suit, you may call us at 1-888-407-0224 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.