SJC upholds time limit expansion in civil sex abuse cases
In a ruling hailed by survivors of child sexual abuse, the state's highest court on Wednesday upheld a 2014 law that gave victims an additional 32 years to file civil lawsuits against alleged perpetrators.
The Supreme Judicial Court's unanimous decision also upheld the part of the law that applies the extension to cases that pre-dated the measure's passage last year.
"It's just a great, great day for so many survivors," said Rosanne Sliney, 52, of Burlington, the plaintiff at the center of the ruling.
Justice Margot Botsford wrote in the decision that the new law, passed in June 2014, stems from the "apparent recognition that in many cases, victims of child abuse are not able to appreciate the extent or the cause of harm they experience as a result of sexual abuse perpetrated on them for many years after the abuse has ended.''
Carmen L. Durso, a lawyer for Sliney who along with his client had lobbied legislators to change the past law, also praised the ruling.
"This is tremendous," Durso said. "I can't overemphasize the importance of how much this will mean to great numbers of people."
Sliney had sued her uncle, Domenic A. Previte Jr., in 2012, alleging that he sexually abused her from the time she was 5 until she turned 14, the SJC said. Previte eventually wrote a "letter of apology to Sliney and asked for her forgiveness,'' Botsford wrote.
Relatives also pressured Sliney into signing a document in 1991 releasing Previte from liability in return for a payment of $26,500, the SJC said.
But by 2011, Sliney began recalling that Previte allegedly forced her to engage in sex with other men, and she filed suit because those acts were not covered by the agreement, the SJC said.
Previte's lawyer on Wednesday called that allegation "absolutely false."
In 2012, Sliney's lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations for civil claims, which ran out when an accuser turned 21, had expired. But under the new law, that statute was extended 32 years to age 53, and allowed the extension to be applied retroactively.
Previte challenged the law, citing, among other issues, the difficulty he could face finding witnesses to rebut Sliney's allegations decades after the incidents allegedly happened.
But the SJC sided with his niece.
The ruling sends the case back to Middlesex Superior Court.
Sylvia Katsenes, Previte's attorney, said her client intends to continue fighting the lawsuit and will seek a dismissal based on the release Sliney signed in 1991.
A call to a number listed for Previte in Boca Raton, Fla., was not returned. He was never charged criminally for the alleged abuse.
Durso said the SJC ruling will bolster advocates in other states who are seeking to expand the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in their jurisdictions.
"They're all looking to see what we've done here," he said.
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, expressed a similar sentiment.
"We hope this ruling will prod more lawmakers to extend or eliminate statutes of limitations which protect wrongdoers, endanger kids, and re-victimize victims," he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Sliney said the trauma that she suffered remains with her.
"It has left an imprint on the core of my soul," she said.