The Judiciary Committee approved a bill Monday that will remove the statute of limitations for those accusing state employees of child sexual assault — a move several committee members worry could put the state’s finances at-risk.
“Without question, this increases the state’s exposure to suit,” said Sen. John A. Kissel,R-Enfield, the Senate ranking Republican on the committee.
The bill originally was introduced to allow dozens of victims of the late Dr. George Reardon to sue the private hospital where he worked, even though his assaults against them occurred before the 30-year statute of limitations currently applied to such cases.
Moments before the vote, the bill was amended to eliminate the one-year statute of limitations that applies to similar cases against the state. The bill then passed by in a close 23-20 vote.
“Why shouldn’t [the state] be held to the same standard as everyone else? If we knew and did nothing then maybe we should be held responsible,” said Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee from East Haven.
Currently, the state can be sued for one year after an alleged offense and private individuals or businesses can be sued for up to 30 years. This bill eliminates both of those time limits.
However, the bill requires that after 30 years there must be documentary or physical evidence of the offense to file suit, unless an alleged victim is joining an existing lawsuit against the same defendant.
In the Reardon case, thousands of child pornographic pictures and films were unearthed more 30 years after many of the offenses.
Several committee members – both Republican and Democrat – spoke in opposition to the bill, saying the state cannot afford these suits.
“It could absolutely be a far-reaching bill for the state to pay. It will only further encumber the state of Connecticut’s finances,” said Rep. Jeffrey J. Berger, D-Waterbury, who voted against the bill.
Kissel said state records only go back so far and eliminating the time limit would put the state in a position where it could not defend itself from suit.
“We have a hard time remembering what we did 30 days ago. …It would be almost impossible to disprove allegations from 30 years ago,” he said.
But Lawlor said during an interview he does not believe the bill would have a significant financial impact on the state’s finances.
“If there were a wide range of cases out there, then I believe we would know about them,” he said, arguing that the financial impact is no excuse to not do what is right.
Those who failed to file suit against a state employee in the one-year time limit do have an appeals process, but Lawlor said it is not commonly used. A few years ago the Judiciary Committee granted a group of foster children the right to sue the Department of Children and Family after they said they were molested after not being accurately monitored in their foster homes, Lawlor said.
Each year the Judiciary Committee grants an average of two or three people the right to sue the state for various reasons, Lawlor said. This bill would allow individuals the right to file suit without the Judiciary Committee’s approval.
“The claims commissioner would have to entertain the claims on the merits. Right now they would be summarily denied,” he said.
Several committee members said they voted in opposition to the bill because they believe there should be time limits to file suit, and the current limits are generous enough. Lawlor said the amendment to eliminate the time limits to sue the state was not the cause of the close 23-20 vote.
If passed, Connecticut would be the fourth state to eliminate statutes of limitations on child sexual offenses – Alaska, Delaware and Minnesota all have no statutes.