A court ruling says a state law that opened a two-year window for adults to file child sexual abuse lawsuits is constitutional, a victory for hundreds of survivors waiting to pursue their cases.
But the court battle over the window may not be over.
Legislators unanimously passed The SAFE Child Act in 2019 allowing child sexual abuse survivors to file civil lawsuits up until the age of 28. Previously the cutoff was until age 21.
The state also opened a “lookback window” from January 2020 to December 2021, during which people could file lawsuits against alleged abusers and abetting institutions, no matter how long ago assaults occurred.
The window’s constitutional grounds were quickly challenged. On Tuesday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected a challenge, writing that the Gaston County Board of Education, the defendant that argued against the two-year window, “failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt” that the clause was unconstitutional.
“Similarly, we hold that, under even the highest level of scrutiny, the SAFE Child Act’s Revival Window passes constitutional muster,” Judge Allison Riggs, who penned the majority opinion, wrote. Riggs was recently appointed by Democratic Gov. Cooper to the state Supreme Court.
This means this ruling “for a minute” is the law of the state, said Charlotte-based attorney Katie Clary, who represents plaintiffs in child sexual abuse cases.
But defendants have the right to appeal, Clary said.
‘For a minute’
During that two-year window, hundreds of people filed and joined lawsuits against various organizations, including The University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Roman Catholic Diocese in Charlotte, the Charlotte Observer and News & Observer have reported. However, the constitutionality challenges stalled the cases.
Clary, a partner with Rawls, Scheer, Clary, & Mingo, said their law firm represents five plaintiffs who went to Asheville School. She said their cases were paused after the Gaston challenge at the appellate court level. “You don’t want to go through a trial, only to learn after you win or lose that that it was deemed unconstitutional,” said Clary.
In the next 30 days, the defendants have a chance to appeal the latest ruling. If they do, cases would remain paused, and the constitutionality question would be brought before the state Supreme Court, which would have to make another determination.
“I will tell you from a practical human level perspective, our clients feel validated,” but “they have not exhaled just yet because we’ve advised them that we can’t just yet,” said Clary.
Attorney General Josh Stein in an email statement on Wednesday said he was “pleased that the court upheld this critical part of the SAFE Child Act, which gave people who were abused as children an opportunity to finally have their day in court.”
“This ability to hold accountable abusers is critical to helping people process traumatic child abuse and recover. I’ll continue to do everything in my power to stand up for victims and survivors of child abuse,” he wrote.
The Gaston case
In 2020, three former East Gaston High School students filed a lawsuit seeking financial damages from the Gaston Board of Education and a former wrestling coach, Gary Scott Goins, who was convicted of statutory rape and other crimes in 2014 related to his abuse of students, The N&O previously reported.
The board of education filed to dismiss the civil lawsuit arguing against the constitutionality of the two-year window. In July 2022, a Democrat-majority Supreme Court agreed to hear the Gaston County case, skipping the Court of Appeals.
But in the fall, following elections, the newly minted Republican-majority court rescinded that order. This landed the case at the appellate court, which ruled Tuesday in favor of the plaintiffs.
This week’s ruling remanded the case back to Gaston County, where the case originated.
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