Legal Reform Calls For Increased Institutional Liability in Sexual Abuse Cases

While the atrocities that shook the foundation of Penn State University continue to resonate throughout the country, proponents of legal reform have begun to question the limits of institutional liability in California. The influx of sexual abuse cases harbored by private organizations has forced state lawmakers to reevaluate their stance on the prosecution of institutions that exhibit a propensity for negligence. Subsequently, the state Supreme Court is currently preparing to hear two cases that will attempt to place increased liability on those organizations that promote sexual assault.

The wake of uncertainty created by the Penn State’s sexual abuse lawsuit has generated a feeling of moral discontent towards institutions in charge of our nation’s youth. Therefore, several lawmakers are pushing for legal reform that will hold public entities liable for their harboring of sexual deviants. Subsequently, the California Supreme Court is hearing a case that places vicarious liability on public schools that protect sexual offenders.

At the forefront of such legal reform is Stuart B. Esner. As the representative of a boy who was allegedly molested by his high school guidance counselor in 2007, Esner believes that the entire school district should be held accountable for negligently hiring and observing an abusive counselor. Several unidentified employes of the same high school had reason to believe that Roselyn Hubbell had a history of sexual molestation. Subsequently, their neglect to report the lewd behavior exhibited by Hubbell placed unsuspecting children in harms way.

However, a 2-1 panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the student had no case against the school. The Legislature purposely shielded public entities from lawsuits, carving out a narrow exception for vicarious liability when individual employees are negligent during the scope of their work duties. Defendants acknowledged “the law is very clear that an employer is not vicariously liable for the sexual escapades of employees.”

Esner, looking to prevent future incidents such as this and the Penn State scandal, claims that school districts have a duty to keep students safe. “When parents send their children to school as they are legally required to do, they should and do expect that the school and its employees will take steps to guard against the retention of child molesters as teachers and counselors who have access to and power over their children,” Esner acknowledged. Esner’s case in the Supreme Court will attempt to hold public entities such as schools vicariously liable for the harboring of child molesters.

Of equal importance to those pushing for legal reform, is the current statute of limitations placed on clergy sexual abuse cases. Subsequently, the second case the California Supreme Court is prepared to hear concerns the law that sets the maximum time after an event that legal proceedings based on that event may be initiated. This Thursday will witness six brothers, who were allegedly molested by the same priest, attempt to increase the current statute of limitations.

In response to widespread allegations of clergy sex abuse, the Legislature created a one-year window in 2003 for filing previously time-barred civil suits for childhood sexual abuse. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church spent more than $1 billion to resolve nearly 1,000 cases filed statewide in that time period. One provision of the law allowed victims to sue within three years after discovering psychological injuries suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse.

However, the question that remains is whether that provision is limited to discoveries made during the legislatively-created window or permanently exposes the church to liability for newly discovered claims.

While court rulings are not expected until early April, their outcomes may have overwhelming ramifications on legal reform pertaining to the limits of institutional liability in California.

Do I Have a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit?

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If you or a loved one has been the victim of sexual abuse, you may be entitled to financial compensation. For a free case review, please click the link below or call toll free 24 hrs/day 1-(949) 557-5800.