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Child Abuse Law Not Applicable: Civil Rights Lawsuit Time-Barred

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

If you're trying to decide whether to file a client's claim in state court or federal court, one option you should weigh is whether the claim could be time-barred in one of your choices.

Today's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case presents a tough lesson in how that choice can affect the outcome of a case.

Ryan Bonneau was 34 when he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against his former teachers, principal, and school district in federal court, alleging that the teachers had beaten him from 1986 to 1988 while he was an elementary school student. The district court dismissed Bonneau's claim as time-barred.

This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, finding that the district court properly applied Oregon's general statute of limitations, rather than a special statute of limitations for abuse victims, to Bonneau's claim.

Oregon, concerned about delayed reporting of child abuse, adopted a special statute of limitations for abuse victims. Under the Oregon statute, an action must be commenced before the person reaches age 40, or within five years of discovery of the causal connection between the abuse and the injury, whichever occurs later.

Bonneau argued that the child abuse-specific statute should be applied in his case because his claims are predicated on child abuse, and he filed suit before reaching age 40. The Ninth Circuit, however, ruled that Supreme Court precedent foreclosed Bonneau's approach.

In Wilson v. Garcia, the Supreme Court explained that a state's residual personal injury statute of limitations, not a range of specialized statutes of limitations, should be applied to a civil rights lawsuit to prevent unnecessary litigation and preserve the efficacy of a civil rights lawsuit remedy.

Because Bonneau filed a federal claim against the teachers, the district court had to apply Oregon's two-year residual statute of limitations for personal injury and its related one-year tolling provision for minors who had reached the age of 18, instead of the more flexible child abuse statute of limitations. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled that Bonneau's repressed memory claim did not delay accrual of the statute of limitations.

Before you file a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a former child abuse victim, discuss state cause of action alternatives with your client; you may be able to bring a federally-time-barred claim in state court under a delayed reporting law.

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