Extending statute of limitations advances in the Senate
The State Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill that would extend the statute of limitations from 2 to 20 years for filing civil lawsuits against sex offenders.
Several years ago, lawmakers put provisions in the state code that would allow victims of sexual abuse to pursue civil action against their abusers two years after the discovery of the crime. The thought was to allow for cases of repressed memories. State code already gives victims the ability to wait until age 18 before pressing charges, so altogether, a childhood victim of sexual abuse must pursue legal action by age 20.
Yesterday, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would extend the statute of limitations to 20 years past the age of 18 for civil cases.
Democratic Senator John Edwards of Roanoke.
Edwards: At the hearing before the civil laws subcommittee, which I chair, a couple of days ago, there were several victims of child abuse who were present, two of whom had testified. A third had not previously testified before the subcommittee.
I asked one of the victims who testified very movingly about his experiences as a child being abused sexually. I asked him at what point could he have felt that he could have gone to see a lawyer or file a lawsuit or done something about it and express publicly and openly what had happened to him. He said he was 37 years old before he could even begin to talk about it publicly and maybe do something about it. 37, 19 years after he was 18.
Then a lady stood up who was a victim who had previously testified and I asked her. And I believe she said, if I'm not mistaken, something like 47 years old, and then a gentleman stood up who had not previously spoken. He was an older gentleman and he started talking about his experiences. His hands were trembling. He was sweating. He said even today, he has a hard time talking about what happened to him as a child. And I asked him, when could he have begun to talk about it publicly and he said he was 60 years old before he could deal with this issue.
Now, I don’t know what the statute of limitations should be, but I don’t think it should be the two years that it is now. I don’t think it should be eight years, which is what, apparently, the body down the hall is considering. Is 20 correct? Well, we looked at what other states have done and they're kind of all over the place. There’s no standard guideline. But the committee decided ‘let's go with 20.’ It needs to be up there.
This is the kind of crime that is repressed. People don’t want to talk about it. It scars them for life.
Republican Senator Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg.
Obenshain: There is no doubt that people who perpetrate these despicable acts need to be punished. They need to be punished criminally. They need to be punished civilly. Under the statutes of limitations that exist right now, defending a case that happened 5, 10 years ago is really incredibly difficult. To have to think about defending a case that involves facts that occurred 20, 30 years ago, is mind-boggling. There is no possible way that a defendant in a suit like that can possibly get a fair trial.
This gives a plaintiff the ability to wait until the defendant dies before bringing a cause of action. The standard of proof in a criminal case and the standard of proof in a civil case is very different. In a criminal case, you have to prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt, which means you have to tip the scales significantly in order to be able to win. In a civil case, you only have to prove your case by the preponderance of the evidence. You just have to tip the scales ever so slightly, in order to be able to win. And in a civil case, the testimony of the plaintiff can tip the scales alone.
What I’m asking you to consider is the case in which the defendant did not do it. In that case, you may have a plaintiff who may think that they remember. They may think that they remember events and they testify about events that did not occur. That can be the greater weight of the evidence, especially in a case in which you wait until the defendant has even passed away.
Out of respect for the interest of fundamental fairness, I really respectfully submit that something less than 20 is appropriate.
The bill must pass one final vote before leaving the Senate chamber. The House version of the bill extends the current statute of limitations from 2 to 8 years and has yet to pass. Should it pass unamended, a conference committee will be likely be required to determine the appropriate extension.
Craig Carper, WCVE News, Capitol Square