UPDATE — August 20, 2016 — the Supreme Court of Virginia has provided clarification of Virginia’s sexual abuse statute of limitations (link).
A video recently went viral when a victim of child sexual abuse confronted her alleged molester, videotaped the telephone conversation, and posted the video on YouTube. In the video, the obviously distraught former student asked a series of heart wrenching questions to her former teacher, seeking to understand why the teacher had sexually abused her. The former student stated that she felt the need to post the video because, among other things, there was nothing that could be done as the statute of limitations for sexual assault had run against the former teacher.
This video is just one more disturbing example of a sexual abuse case where a person of power or influence sexually assaults a child. Stories like the Penn State saga with Jerry Sandusky, sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, and even the story about Charlottesville Boy Scout leader David Watkins, all demonstrate that these types of matters can occur in any organization where adolescents are present. After all, sexual abuse of children can occur when a person with power, such as a coach, teacher, organization leader, priest, boss, pastor, day care worker, or other person with authority and access to children, violates that trust in an unimaginable way.
These stories are more common than just the high-profile cases reported in the media. There are unfortunately and undoubtedly many child victims of molestation who, like the former student in the video, have kept silent about their past abuse even after they reach adulthood. This silence may be due to many factors, such as having to deal with tremendous psychological and emotional considerations, having to release information that has been kept as a dark secret, and having to address situations that may have occurred years or even decades ago.
When deciding whether to take legal action based on past sexual abuse, rape, sexual battery, or sexual assault, one of the most important factors such sexual abuse victims must consider is whether they have legal rights to pursue. Due to fairly recent changes to Virginia law, individuals who experienced sexual abuse from decades ago may still have the right to pursue a civil lawsuit for compensatory or punitive damages.
With that in mind, here is some general information to consider about the statute of limitations for child sex abuse in Virginia:
To begin with, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children or incapacitated individuals in Virginia is twenty years from the date the sexual abuse cause of action “accrues.” See Va. Code sec. 8.01-243(D). The accrual date for sexual abuse against children in Virginia is the date the clock starts to run toward the statute of limitations, and the cause of action will accrue on one of two events.
First, the statute of limitations will begin to run for children twenty years after the abuse claim accrues. For a child, the claim accrues when the abuse victim turns 18 years old, which means the lawsuit must be filed within 20 years of the accrual date or else the action will be barred by the statute of limitations. That means, generally speaking, a victim of childhood sex abuse would have until their 38th birthday to file suit to recover.
Second, and alternatively, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse or sexual assault may start to run or accrue when “the fact of the injury and its causal connection to the sexual abuse is first communicated to the person by a licensed physician, psychologist, or clinical psychologist.” [i] Put a little differently, a sexual abuse victim may not fully grasp that their emotional or psychological injuries are due to the sexual abuse they experienced, or they may repress their understanding of the abusive event, perhaps due to post traumatic stress disorder or other psychological conditions.
Recognizing the psychological complexity of these injuries arising from sexual abuse of vulnerable victims, Virginia’s legislature changed the statute of limitations for sexual abuse in Virginia so that the time to file a lawsuit starts to run when certain medical professionals identify and communicate to the victim the link between the injury and the abuse. When that occurs, the statute of limitations starts and the individual has two years to file suit (unless the time remaining in the original twenty year statute is longer).
There is an extremely important fact to consider about the “medical professional” portion of the statute of limitations: though an individual may have a claim that does not start until a licensed medical professional links the injury to the sexual abuse, that statute of limitations date has been deemed to apply only to claims against “natural persons.” It does not apply to entities such as corporations, associations, or other organizations.[ii] Stated a little differently, if an individual has a potential claim against an organization, entity, or association for sexual abuse, that claim does not get the benefit of time extensions due to the “medical professional” notice of injury. To be safe, such claims for child sex abuse should be brought within the first statute of limitations.
If you, a family member, or close friend has been sexually abused or has suffered a sexual assault from a person in a position of power, it is vital that professional help be sought. It is also vital for victims of sexual abuse, rape, or sexual assault to know their rights, including their right to seek compensation through a civil suit from the perpetrator of the abuse. Determining the statute of limitations can involve difficult legal issues and can depend on a variety of factors. Because of this, please use this article for informational purposes only and not as legal advice.
For a free and confidential consultation for this unique type of injury case, please contact Virginia Personal Injury Lawyer Robert E. Byrne, Jr. of MartinWren, P.C. Bob can be reached at (434) 817-3100 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.