New California law gives victims of childhood sexual assault more time to file lawsuits

Survivors of childhood sexual assault will have more time to report abuse allegations and file lawsuits under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday.

The law has been heralded by advocates of childhood assault survivors as a new opportunity for now-adult victims to find justice and closure, in some cases decades after experiencing abuse and trauma at institutions such as schools, churches and other youth-serving organizations.

Currently, survivors must file a lawsuit either by age 26 or, if already an adult, within three years of having realized their psychological injury or illness was caused by childhood abuse, whichever comes later. Assembly Bill 218 now increases the statute of limitation to age 40, and gives adult survivors who have recently discovered their abuse five years to sue.

Under the law, survivors also have a three-year “look-back window” starting in January 2020 in which sexual abuse claims that have since passed the statute of limitations can be pursued. Courts will also be allowed to triple the amount of damages awarded to a victim if there was an attempted cover-up.

“For decades, we failed our kids. Now, adult survivors of child sexual abuse will have a chance to be heard,” tweeted Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, the bill’s author, on Sunday. She later tweeted, “I just can’t even stop crying. This is so unbelievable.”

Gonzalez had introduced a similar bill last year, which was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who wrote, “There comes a time when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits.”

Sacramento-based lawyer Joseph George, who frequently represents survivors of childhood sexual assault, called the new law “among the most sensitive and far-reaching laws” of its kind in the United States.

“With this measure, California lawmakers acknowledge a reality that few legislatures acknowledge: that it almost inevitably takes decades for people violated as kids to realize they were severely harmed and find the strength and courage to stand up for themselves and safeguard others,” George said in a statement last month.

Several groups, including the California Association of Joint Powers Authorities and the Schools Excess Liability Fund, opposed the bill, arguing it would put “every public agency in the position of having to defend itself against decades-old claims when witnesses may be scarce, memories may have faded, or there has been a turnover in staff.”

“This will surely result in funding intended to educate students and serve communities to instead be spent on increased legal costs, including payments to attorneys, whether or not the claim is valid,” read a call to action letter published by SELF earlier this year.

Earlier this month, Newsom also approved Assembly Bill 1510, which gives victims of alleged sexual abuse by former USC campus gynecologist George Tyndall an extra year to file lawsuits. Nearly 400 women have made allegations against Tyndall during this 27 years at the university, according to a yearlong Los Angeles Times investigation.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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