Court Enunciates New Test for Tolling Child Sex Abuse Statute of Limitations
By Michael Booth
New Jersey Law Journal
June 11, 2009
The state Supreme Court on Thursday set out a two-stage analysis that trial judges must conduct to decide whether and for how long the two-year statute of limitations in child sexual abuse suits can be tolled.
The formula, which includes objective and subjective elements, will determine whether a Morris County man can pursue a suit, filed in 2004, alleging that his stepfather sexually assaulted him multiple times from 1987 and 1990, when he was between ages 10 to 12.
Superior Judge David Rand dismissed the suit as time-barred, but the Appellate Division reversed, saying the plaintiff did not appreciate that the abuse caused his emotional injuries until undergoing psychotherapy in 2002 and thus that the complaint was filed within two years of accrual of the cause of action.
In Thursday's ruling, R L. v. Voytac, A-61-08, Justice John Wallace Jr. said both lower courts erred. Rand did not conduct a thorough enough inquiry into when the plaintiff should have known that the root of his problems lay with the alleged sexual abuse, which the stepfather, Kenneth Voytac, denies.
And the Appellate Division mistakenly conflated two provisions in the Child Sexual Abuse Act. An action for child sex abuse must be filed within two years after "the reasonable discovery of the injury and its casual relationship to the act of sexual abuse" but the limitations period may be tolled because of the plaintiff's "mental state, duress by the defendant, or any other equitable grounds," the act says.
"We conclude that pursuant to the Act, the trial court must first determine when a reasonable person subjected to childhood abuse would discover that the defendant's conduct caused him or her injury. That is an objective test," wrote Wallace. "If that period is more than two years prior to the filing of the complaint, then the court must next determine whether the statute should be tolled because of 'the mental state, duress by the defendant, or any other equitable grounds.'"
The justices remanded the case for that analysis and said that since Rand made several factual and credibility findings, another judge should handle it.
Voytac's lawyer, William Johnson, says he and is client are pleased with the ruling. "The Court correctly interpreted the act as saying there is an objective standard to be applied when determining when the cause of action accrued," says Johnson, of Dover's Johnson & Johnson. "The Appellate Division had applied a subjective standard."
R.L.'s lawyer, Victor Rotolo, who runs his own firm in Lebanon, says he relishes retrying the case. "I have to go back to the beginning, but that's fine," he says. "The ruling gives plaintiffs a clear roadmap as to what they have to do."