Readers will be very familiar with the increasing momentum of the #MeToo movement, which gained international traction following the prosecution of film producer Harvey Weinstein for the sexual harassment and assault of numerous women whom he had then coerced into silence for many years.
Legislation in New York state has now been enacted in order to enable adult victims of sexual abuse to bring civil claims for damages. The Adult Survivors Act, which comes into force on 24 November 2022, will allow adults who have suffered sexual abuse to institute their civil claims without having to overcome challenging limitation provisions that currently make it difficult for those claims to be pursued.
This new legislation is known colloquially as a revival statute, or lookback period statute. The new statutes set down a stipulated window, usually of at least one year, within which adult victims can bring claims that would otherwise be statutorily time-barred by limitation. This may all sound quite novel. In fact, nearly half of US state legislatures have enacted similar claim windows in recent years as they respond to the requirements of a society that now takes a greater interest in how present limitation legislation can prevent abuse claims being pursued. In addition, revival statutes often contain prospective extension of both criminal and civil limitation periods for the benefit of future claims that cannot be brought inside the limited window.
The US courts are also seeing an increase in the proportion of sexual abuse claims that are brought in vicarious liability rather than directly against the abuser. We are, of course, very familiar with vicarious liability claims being brought, not only because our law makes those claims relatively straightforward to pursue but also because organisations will have insurance and/or greater funds whereas the abuser may have little or no assets. Due to the structure of the US legal system the ease with which vicarious liability claims can be pursued will vary, but there is statistical proof that revival statutes are facilitating significantly increased claim numbers. New York state ran a two-year revival window for minor victims under its Child Victims Act. Over 10,000 cases were filed. The first reported jury award was an eye-watering $25 million. It can be confidently assumed that New York state’s Adult Survivors Act will generate many more claims.
Furthermore, New York City recently amended its Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act to provide a revival window for persons "claiming to be injured by a party who commits, directs, enables, participates in, or conspires in the commission of a crime of violence motivated by gender." The two-year window, which can be used by both adults and children, opens on 1 March 2023.
Unsurprisingly, organisations now facing these claims, many dating back decades, are being advised to locate their non-recent insurance coverage as a matter of urgency. Those organisations that cannot locate cover are likely to have to consider carefully how best to deal with these claims and their consequent financial impact, perhaps through some form of redress scheme (described in the US as claims programs) which it would be advisable to engage independent experts to create, organise and administer.