A bill allowing victims of sexual abuse to file a lawsuit for incidents that occurred decades ago appears on its way to final Senate approval after clearing a key preliminary hurdle.
The action Tuesday sets up the potential for final Senate approval later this week. The vote came after a failed Republican-led effort to amend the bill over concerns that state courts would ultimately exempt private companies and other entities but leave state and local governments on the hook for millions, perhaps billions, in settlements.
Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll and Frederick) called the bill and its potentially large payouts “a runaway train.”
“This could be a multi-billion dollar judgment against government,” said Ready, envisioning lawsuits against state and local governments for incidents occurring decades ago. “And again, it would not have to be that you prove that they all had something bad happened because, again, if somebody proved it, it’s one thing. What we’re talking about is it’s their word against a system that may not have records from that far back.”
Ready argued that governments and school systems could potentially be responsible for payments in excess of projected costs of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the state’s multi-billion-dollar education reform effort.
Senate Bill 686 repeals the statute of limitations, allowing victims of child sexual abuse to sue for incidents at any time.
The Senate bill caps liability for governments and school boards at $890,000. Damages against private institutions would be capped at $1.5 million.
The caps would apply to each incident of abuse.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery) said it was “conceivably possible that you could have massive claims.” But that has not been the experience in other states, he said.
“Across the nation that have been 22 states that have done this, there are no caps and they have not seen the type of radical exposure to fiscal liability and trouble that I think we’re all very rightfully thinking about in this body,” he said. “And so those states’ examples can be instructive to what we do here.”
Smith acknowledged the bill could face some constitutional challenges including the legality of retroactively ending the statute of limitations for private entities including religious organizations.
Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown (D), in a letter sent earlier this legislative session, told lawmakers it was not clear how the court might rule. He said the bill “is not clearly unconstitutional” and that he could defend it in court.
Ready said the possibility of a challenge could leave only state and local governments liable for abuse claims.
Ready unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would couple the statute of limitations provisions for government and private entities. If a state court struck down one side, it would effectively overturn the law.
“We as a government should say, look, we’re going to give those survivors access to justice, no matter what happens on the private entities, so we can still maintain a modicum of this level of access to justice, even if one door is closed,” said Smith.
The House is considering a similar bill sponsored by Economic Matters Chair C.T. Wilson (D-Charles).
Wilson, an abuse survivor, has championed the issue for years, even as efforts to further expand a 2017 statute of limitations bill stalled in the Senate recently.
The chamber’s vote comes as the Maryland Office of the Attorney General prepares to release a redacted report detailing 80 years of alleged clergy abuse in the state.
On Tuesday, a Baltimore judge approved proposed redactions to the report, clearing a path for its public release, though it was not immediately clear when that might occur.
“We are pleased with the Court’s order this afternoon authorizing release of a redacted version of our report on child sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. We will work to complete the court-ordered redactions and release the report as expeditiously as possible.”