Opinion: Lawmakers Should Oppose Bill to Retroactively Allow Old Lawsuits

Lady Justice. Photo via Unsplash.com.

Proposed legislation once again before committees in the Maryland House and Senate is the latest attempt by out-of-state trial lawyers to change the law in states like Maryland so they can gain access to the assets of mostly private organizations and institutions by suing them for one type of crime — child sexual abuse — regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.

Simply put, this bill would allow anyone to come forward and claim he or she was abused 40, 50, 60 years earlier, as did an 87-year-old man who claimed to have been abused in the early 1940s in a lawsuit filed in New York last January after that state passed a similar bill.

Allowing such claims opens the floodgates to the hundreds of lawsuits that have followed passage of this bill in other states and to the big law firms that stand to benefit from settlements in the hundreds of millions. Such claims are almost always settled due to the risk and cost of trying to defend an allegation where there are typically no witnesses and where the accused is deceased and unable to defend themselves.

But it is not offenders they are after. Working with advocacy groups and PR firms, proponents go state-by-state and find local legislators — often with a history of championing legislation to protect children — to convince their legislative counterparts that they should join the small number of other states whose lawmakers caved to the public pressure and PR scare tactics used by advocates, by agreeing to unfairly expose private institutions while protecting public ones, all under the guise that it protects children and exposes hidden predators.

If this legislation was about protecting children and holding accountable offenders and those responsible for them, why does it not apply equally in cases of abuse alleged to have occurred in public settings such as schools, foster homes, parks and recreation teams, and juvenile justice facilities? Why does it not apply in similarly heinous crimes against children, such as domestic violence, police abuse, drunk driving, human trafficking and even murder?

The Maryland General Assembly has recognized that victims of child sexual abuse often need longer to report these horrible offenses, which is why in 2017 the legislature dramatically extended the statute of limitations on civil claims in cases of child sexual abuse. It was also in 2017 that the Maryland General Assembly and this issue’s most recent proponent — Del. CT Wilson — agreed that the issue had once and for all been settled. This commitment was not just made in Delegate Wilson’s televised (and recorded) testimony, it was also etched into the 2017 law in the form of a statute of repose.

Now, Delegate Wilson is back at it this year, just as he has been every year since making that 2017 promise. And he is not alone. Back too are the out-of-state lawyers, lobbyists, and network of advocacy groups, all speaking from the same sheet of talking points, all asking legislators to pass a bill that would undo the state’s promise and advance the interests of those seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from private schools & universities, churches, hospitals, and others.

Sadly, supporters of the measure disguise its true intent through talking points that appeal to reason and on the rightful sympathies of those who agree that no child should be harmed, that anyone responsible for the harm of a child should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Supporters want legislators to ignore the fact that victims of abuse in public settings — including countless minorities, people without the means to attend private institutions, people who suffered abuse by police, foster parents, juvenile justice guards and others — do not deserve the same “justice” that victims of abuse in private settings would be awarded.

Supporters want legislators to ignore the fact that private schools and other institutions saw the state’s 2017 decision to put a permanent end to this annual threat by trial lawyers as a green light to disclose past cases of abuse. Supporters want legislators to ignore the state’s own lawyers who have written that this legislation is unconstitutional. They want them to ignore the fact that passage of it would give victims of abuse false hope, since it would undoubtedly be struck down by any court with access to a law book.

This legislation is bad public policy and bad law. It is also unconstitutional and grossly discriminatory against the countless children abused in public institutions. The state should keep its promise and continue to strengthen Maryland law in ways that treat all victims of abuse the same, whether in public or private settings, and provide true protection and accountability.

— SEAN CAINE

The writer is principal of Caine Communications, a Baltimore-County based communications and public affairs consulting firm and a former director of communications at the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He can be reached at [email protected]