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More child abuse victims can sue after Louisiana Supreme Court reversal


More child abuse victims can sue after Louisiana Supreme Court reversal

Jun 13, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
More child abuse victims can sue after Louisiana Supreme Court reversal
The Louisiana Supreme Court reverse itself on an earlier ruling about child abuse cases. It will allow more lawsuits to come forward. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Adults abused as children decades ago will be able to sue over the mistreatment under a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling released Wednesday. 

Justices overturned their decision from March that declared a “lookback window” for lawsuits over older child abuse allegations unconstitutional. Now such cases can move forward.

The new ruling likely creates greater liability for the Catholic Church and other organizations accused of systemic child exploitation over decades. It could also affect individual schools, summer camps and other institutions that tolerated misconduct toward minors.

“I am thankful that the Court saw the error in its original opinion and was willing to reconsider this matter and find the Lookback Window to be constitutional,” Frank Lamothe, a New Orleans attorney who represents child abuse survivors in lawsuits against the Catholic Church, said in a written statement. “This is a victory for the survivors of child sex abuse.”

The court’s change of heart is also a political victory for Attorney General Liz Murrill, who put the justices under public pressure to reconsider the initial ruling. In April, she asked for a rehearing on the issue.

“These child victims of sexual abuse deserve their day in court,” Murrill said in a written statement  Wednesday after the new ruling. “It’s very rare for the Supreme Court to grant rehearing and reverse itself. I’m grateful to the Court for giving such careful attention to an issue that is so deeply troubling and personal for so many victims of abuse.” 

A case brought against the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette led to the justices’ ruling. A group of plaintiffs sued over alleged abuse at the hands of a priest in the 1970s. The diocese maintained the accusations were too old to be pursued. 

The Legislature voted in 2021 to let adult survivors of child abuse file claims for damages for three years — from June 14, 2021 to June 14, 2024 — if the deadline to do so had previously expired. 

This was expected to allow people abused prior to the early 1990s, but who had never come forward with a legal challenge, to do so.

The Lafayette diocese pushed back on the law, saying legislators never intended to allow old allegations dating back to the 1970s to be examined. They also argued allowing older accusations to come forward would be a violation of due process, because witnesses and documents related to abuse claims might longer be available. 

The Legislature disagreed. It unanimously passed a clarifying law in 2022, stating its intent to allow for civil lawsuits over decades-old abuse. Earlier this year, lawmakers also unanimously approved a resolution, sent to each Supreme Court justice, restating their desire to see older abuse allegations be brought forward in court.

In the ruling released Wednesday, justices writing for the majority acknowledged as much.

“[T]he conclusion is unassailable: the legislature intended retroactive application of the law,” Chief Justice John Weimer said in his opinion. 

Weimer also agreed with the lawmakers’ reasoning for establishing a three-year lookback period. Many victims take years to come to terms with their mistreatment as youth.

“Child sexual abuse is a unique tort in which the average victim does not come forward until they are 52 years old,” Weimer wrote. “For many victims of child sexual abuse, the revival provision represents their first and only opportunity to bring suit. Providing that opportunity to those victims is a legitimate legislative purpose.”

Justices Weimer, John Crain and Jay McCallum voted in favor of upholding the lookback window twice, in March and this week. Justices Scott Crichton and Piper Griffin reversed themselves, initially throwing out the lookback period in March but voting to reinstate it this week. 

Justices James Genovese and Jeff Hughes opposed the lookback window both times, saying the Legislature was overstepping its bounds by passing the law.

“I am very concerned about this majority ruling on rehearing granting unbridled authority to the legislature to enact legislation which supersedes and tramples our constitution,” Genovese wrote.

The confusion over the 2021 law prompted the Legislature to make yet another legal change this year. Last month, they unanimously passed an extension to the lookback window, which will allow abuse survivors to file lawsuits until June 14, 2027. 

Advocates for child abuse victims said some people have held back on filing lawsuits while the court deliberated whether the lookback period would stand.