Past Child Sexual Abuse Survivors No Longer Have 3-Year Window for Lawsuits

By: Robinson & Henry, Attorneys At Law
PublishedJun 21, 2023
4 minute read

The secret shame of having experienced sexual abuse as a child is a lot of weight to carry, even for an adult. Unfortunately, it can take survivors decades to push past the trauma and seek justice as part of their healing process. Many could not confront their past abuse, much less seek compensation, until after their statute of limitations expired. Colorado created a 3-year window allowing survivors from as far back as 1960 to pursue legal action. That law went into effect on January 1, 2022. However, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned it in June 2023, saying it violated the state constitution’s prohibition on retrospective legislation.

Are You a Child Sexual Abuse Survivor? 

If you are, and the statute of limitations for your case would not have expired before January 1, 2022, you still have legal options. If you are unsure about how to proceed, or whether your claim is time-barred, a Colorado lawsuit attorney might be able to help. Call 303-688-0944 to begin your case assessment.

New Law Still Eliminates Previous Statute of Limitations

The Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act eliminated the statute of limitations for when individuals and organizations can be sued for committing, enabling, or ignoring sexual abuse against minors. The state Supreme Court overturned the “3-year lookback window.” However, survivors whose abuse ocurred after January 1, 2022, and those whose claims would not have been time-barred by the previous six-year statute of limitations, can still pursue litigation.

The new law put abusers and enabling organizations on notice that from now on, former victims can take them to court at any time. No longer can they escape accountability by waiting out the statute of limitations.

The portion of the law that the Colorado Supreme Court left in place is still an important step forward. Unfortunately, past survivors who were already prohibited by the statute of limitations now have no legal recourse.

A Provision for Past Survivors — Overturned

In July 2021, the Colorado legislature attached a new section to the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act. Senate Bill 088 temporarily nullified the previous statute of limitations that prevented past survivors from taking legal action. This “lookback window” was intended to restore the rights of survivors to sue their abusers or any institution or organization that covered up or failed to prevent the abuse. However, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned Senate Bill 088 as “retrospective legislation,” saying:

“We certainly understand the General Assembly’s desire to right the wrongs of past decades by permitting such victims to hold abusers and their enablers accountable. But the General Assembly may accomplish its ends only through constitutional means. The retrospectivity clause of the Colorado Constitution prohibits retroactive legislation that creates a new obligation, imposes a new duty, or attaches a new disability with respect to past transactions or considerations. By creating a “new right for relief” that attaches liability for conduct predating the Act and for which any previously available cause of action would be time-barred, the CSAAA does just that.”Aurora Public Schools et al. v. A.S. et al (Colorado, June 20, 2023)

Why Come Forward Now?

Every survivor of child sexual abuse recovers from their experience differently, but for all, it is a deeply personal process. The decision to come forward and file a lawsuit is one that must be weighed against the possibility of reopening old wounds. Then again, finding and holding an abuser accountable can be, for some survivors, a necessary step to healing.

If you have an opportunity to pursue litigation against your individual abuser or their enabler, then the chance to recover monetary damages must be a consideration. However, it should not be the only consideration.

What Kind of Organizations or Institutions Can Be Held Responsible? 

In many cases of child sexual abuse, the individual attacker holds a position of authority or influence over their victim. They could be a schoolteacher, a clergy member, a scout leader, or a youth outreach volunteer. Since abusers in these positions tend to be employed by certain organizations, they might not be the only ones to face civil liability.

Churches, school districts, athletic organizations, and other institutions where adults work with children are charged with a legal duty to protect vulnerable members. This obligation tends to intersect with the principle of “negligence,” which guides most injury-related civil cases.

What Counts as Negligence? 

Here are some examples of how organizations demonstrate negligence or a pattern of enabling child sexual abuse:

  • Failing to screen or monitor employees who committed sexual abuse
  • Failing to report abuse to local law enforcement or state licensing officials
  • Not disclosing cases of sexual abuse to the perpetrator’s future employers
  • Minimizing or failing to investigate credible reports of sexual abuse or misconduct by employees
  • Shuffling abusers to new jobs in different locations where they are likely to continue their behavior against other children
  • Failing to take appropriate disciplinary measures against employees who have committed child sexual abuse

When an organization, church, or school district does not take seriously reports of sexual misconduct or abuse against children in its care, it also fails to contain the problem. Even teachers or clergy who are caught and immediately fired for their behavior often move to new positions where they can continue working with children.

Failure to adequately report instances of child sexual abuse to state authorities, law enforcement, and future employers can make an institution liable if or when the perpetrator finds a new victim. It is not enough to quietly fire the abuser and move on.

How Does a Civil Case Differ from a Criminal Case?

Criminal Cases

There is no statute of limitations on criminal cases of child sexual abuse in Colorado. However, only the individual abuser can be charged in most cases, and conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And that burden of proof can be a difficult standard to meet if too much time has passed since the abuse. Evidence can vanish over time, and key witnesses can pass away or be difficult to track down.

Civil Cases

Civil actions seek to hold perpetrators, and their enablers, accountable for the wrongs they’ve committed against the victim. Lawsuits do this by pursuing monetary compensation for physical and emotional injuries inflicted.

Unlike criminal cases, civil cases need only demonstrate that abuse “more than likely” occurred and that the abuser and/or the organization that employed them are liable.

If You Can’t Convict, You Can Still Collect 

A criminal conviction against an individual actor can certainly make it easier to recover civil damages from them and/or their employer, but it is hardly necessary.

Since a civil claim has a lower burden of proof, it is possible for an accused abuser to be found liable in civil court without a criminal conviction, even if they are never criminally charged.

From a practical point of view, the ability to hold organizations such as churches, school districts, and other youth associations accountable for their employees’ actions is key to collecting compensation. Individual offenders may possess few assets from which compensation can be drawn. Large organizations such as churches and school districts, however, carry ample liability insurance coverage.

We Hold Sexual Abusers and Enablers Accountable 

The three-year “lookback window” will close for good on January 1, 2025. Until then, if you are a survivor of child sexual abuse that took place between 1960 and 2021, you have options for justice or compensation. Our litigation attorneys have the experience and expertise to go after your abuser and the system that allowed the abuse to happen. Call 303-688-0944 for your case assessment.

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