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Senate passes bill opening ‘lookback window’ for childhood abuse lawsuits

Maryland’s Senate passed a bill Thursday that will open a retroactive “lookback window” allowing childhood sexual abuse survivors to bring lawsuits even if their claims already expired under a previous statute of limitations.

The Senate’s approval means the long-sought legislation is likely to pass the full General Assembly this year; the House of Delegates has repeatedly voted in favor of versions of the bill in the past.

Senators voted 42-5 in favor of the bill, known as the Child Victims Act of 2023, at their evening session. The bill would also eliminate the statute of limitations for future lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse.

The chairman of the Maryland Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery County, has put his support behind the Child Victims Act of 2023.

The chairman of the Maryland Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery County, has put his support behind the Child Victims Act of 2023.

Abuse survivors have pressed for the bill’s passage for years, only to see it falter in the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee under pressure from the Catholic Church. This year, however, the bill had the backing of the committee’s chairman, Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery County.

The committee advanced the bill by a 10-1 vote last week. The bill is also expected to pass in the House of Delegates, which has voted in favor of versions of the legislation several years in a row.

Robert K. Jenner, a Baltimore attorney who handles clergy and therapist abuse cases, said the bill’s passage would bring a surge of relief for survivors.

“After years and years of promoting a child sexual abuse act, only to be turned away at the legislature year after year?” Jenner said. “This is vindication at the highest conceivable level for them.”

If it passes, the law would mean that abuse survivors who missed their chance to sue under existing statutes of limitations will have another chance to bring lawsuits against abusers and the institutions accused of protecting them, such as schools, camps and religious entities.

Abuse survivors often don’t come forward with claims for decades, which can make it difficult to hold abusers accountable in court.

The Child Victims Act found new momentum this year ahead of the upcoming release of a grand jury report into decades of sexual abuse and coverups in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The report, which has been approved for release following a series of redactions, is expected to name dozens of clergy who have never before been publicly accused of sexual abuse.

Similar revelations in other states have led to a major push to extend or eliminate statutes of limitations for civil claims stemming from childhood sexual abuse.

RELATED: Redacted report on archdiocese sexual abuse to be released soon

Fifteen states have no statute of limitations for civil claims in childhood sexual abuse claims and 24 states have passed lookback windows, according to Child USA, a think tank that tracks this legislation and other child abuse prevention efforts.

The Maryland law will almost certainly face an immediate constitutional challenge in the courts. Opponents of the bill have argued it is unconstitutional to retroactively remove a statute of limitations — and in this case, the law will face an even greater test because lawmakers in 2017 passed a “statute of repose” that created a hard cutoff blocking future lawsuits based on claims that were already out of date.

The statute of repose was added in 2017, when Maryland legislators passed a law to extend the statute of limitations for civil childhood sexual abuse claims to 20 years after the victim reaches the age of majority, or 18 years old. Lawmakers have said they did not realize they were including a statute of repose, and the question of who added that language to the bill remains unclear.

In an advice letter issued late last month, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown concluded that the law is “not clearly unconstitutional” and that he would be comfortable defending the proposal in court. The finding was a reversal from the previous attorney general’s administration, which concluded in a 2019 letter that a retroactive window would “most likely be found unconstitutional.”

Brown’s letter acknowledged, however, that it is unclear how the Maryland Supreme Court would rule.

The version of the bill that passed Thursday includes an amendment to allow for an interlocutory appeal, which would put revived lawsuits on hold until the Supreme Court can decide on the law’s constitutionality.

The bill caps noneconomic damages against private entities at $1.5 million in revived claims, but does not cap economic damages. Damages against public institutions would be capped at $890,000.

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