California’s statute of limitations and AB 1510

Illustration of a book of the statute of limitations on a courtroom desk. (Image: designer491, via Shutterstock)

Over the last couple of years, our society has finally started taking instances of sexual abuse seriously. The most shocking and attention grabbing cases are of course assaults against children. State legislatures have begun to examine what can be done to help victims of sexual abuse and assault of minors.

One of the more popular avenues they are pursuing is changing Statute of Limitations Laws (SOL), which often prevent minors from seeking damages later in life, and after they’ve had time to understand and appreciate the horrors that happened to them.  However, this awareness has also caused state legislatures to actively focus on the SOL that impact potential legal actions of any individuals who have experienced sexual assault and abuse.

With the heightened media attention surrounding the California Assembly bill AB 1510, and the addition of high profile allies like Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, who has been a great advocate for victims’ rights, it is worth examining what is in the bill.

AB 1510 appears primarily as a subterfuge to disrupt the $215 million proposed settlement in the University of Southern California case involving disgraced physician Dr. George Tyndall.

AB 1510 was originally announced as a moderate proposal to amend the SOL to expand the time period by one year to bring a civil action for recovery of damages resulting from the sexual assault of individuals 18 years or older.

However, AB 1510 is an extreme proposal that masks what appears to be the true attitude of Assembly Member Eloise Reyes’ position on SOL and sets a dangerous precedent. As noted in her recent tweet of April 9, 2019, SOL are, “archaic deadlines,” clearly suggesting she believes they have no place in modern jurisprudence.

If enacted, legal actions for sexual assault could now be brought at the later of “10 years from the date of the last act, attempted act, or an intent to commit an act of sexual assault or within three years from the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably could have discovered that an injury or illness resulted from an act, attempted act, or an intent to commit an act of sexual assault.”

Also concerning is that AB 1510 appears primarily as a subterfuge to disrupt the $215 million proposed settlement in the *University of Southern California case involving disgraced physician Dr. George Tyndall at a student health center accused of sexual misconduct in treating female students. Such legislative maneuverings to expand the SOL to create causes of action against a single and identifiable defendant is a dangerous precedent.

Regardless of SOL, the burden of proof would still need to be met and as is the case with numerous claims that date back years, thus far the Courts overseeing these cases have not seen much compelling evidence to meet that burden.

It is reasonable then to assume that even if the SOL were expanded, there is no guarantee that anything will change legally for these victims. The present settlement covers all of Tyndall’s former patients, no questions asked. If potential parties and their attorneys go to civil trial, evidence and witnesses are often not available decades later, and they run a major risk that they could potentially end up with nothing. This bill misleads victims and the public into thinking justice is just a pen stroke away.

AB 1510 is a radical proposal that undermines legal precedent and the courts of law that have long recognized SOL as an important aspect of our country’s rule of law and have generally enforced SOL recognizing the value of such statutes to encourage aggrieved parties to assert their claims within a reasonable time.

State legislatures have been and will likely continue to actively review their state SOL, such as how to address the recent spate of reported sexual assault cases.  However, in dealing with such complex and difficult situations, state legislatures should remember to carefully draft and enact laws that are transparent and that clearly set out who could be impacted by changes in SOL.

In addition, states must be cautious when amending laws and applying such laws to one single defendant because that can be a slippery legislative slope.

*Editor’s Note: Corrects reference to University of Southern California, not UC, in 7th paragraph; edits highlighted text to conform. Vickie Yates Brown Glisson is a nationally recognized health lawyer and is a past chair of the American Bar Association’s Health Law Section.

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