The New Jersey legislature passed legislation on March 25, 2019 that extends the statute of limitations in civil actions for sexual abuse claims. The statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims had been two years from the age of majority (18 years old) or from the time that the victim becomes aware of the injury.
Under the new law, if the victim is either a minor (under the age of 18) or was a minor at the time of the abuse, he or she has until age 55 (37 years from their 18th birthday) to bring a civil action. An adult victim must file a lawsuit within seven years from the date of reasonable discovery of the injury and its causal relationship to the abusive act. The statute of limitations could be extended by a court “because of the plaintiff’s mental state, physical or mental disability, duress by the defendant, or any other equitable grounds,” as determined at a plenary hearing.
The extended statute of limitations is retroactive, applying to any act of abuse that occurred “prior to, on or after” the effective date of the bill. The bill also permits, for a two-year window immediately following the effective date of the bill, actions against entities or individuals concerning sexual abuse that occurred prior to the effective date that would otherwise be time barred. Thus, during this two-year period, a claim which would have been barred based upon the two-year statute of limitations period or the retroactively applied 37 years period can be filed.
The new legislation also expands the categories of potential defendants in civil actions, and for some actions permit retroactive application of standards of liability to past acts of abuse. Specifically, the bill establishes retroactive application of an exception to the Charitable Immunity Act, making organizations liable for acts of mere negligence in the hiring, supervision or retention of an employee, agent or servant resulting in sexual abuse committed against a minor under the age of eighteen years. This exception to the heightened standard of willful, wanton, or grossly negligent conduct applicable to non-profits under the Charitable Immunity Act had previously been applied prospectively from date the law took effect on January 5, 2006. The new law would also permit suits against public entities under a simple negligence standard. However, the law prohibits lawsuits to proceed as a class action and privately negotiated settlements of abuse claims on a class basis would be deemed void and unenforceable.