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Louisiana Supreme Court reopens window for lawsuits over past childhood sexual abuse

1 month 1 day 15 hours ago Thursday, June 13 2024 Jun 13, 2024 June 13, 2024 5:19 PM June 13, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Supreme Court reopened the "lookback window" in child sexual abuse cases, saying victims can pursue claims against purported perpetrators regardless of how long ago it occurred. 

"This is huge. This is the ruling we've been waiting for," said lawyer Collin Melancon, who represents clients who say they were abused in their childhood. He says since the ruling came out, victims have been consistently calling his office. 

Justices had ruled in a 4-3 decision March 22 that legislators had violated the state constitution when it removed the statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims and provided victims a temporary window to file lawsuits. Last month, the court said it would review that decision and on Tuesday, it reversed itself. 

The act allowing claims "is constitutional and applies retroactively to revive all causes of action related to sexual abuse of a minor," the court said in a 5-2 ruling.

Melancon said his clients looked forward to their day in court.

"I had some in tears, some just thanking the lawyers and the legislators and the judges who worked on this case," he said. "They just want to hold the people responsible."

Legislators, anticipating the reversal this year, extended the window for lawsuits to June 14, 2027, Melancon said.

The ruling Wednesday only allows people to bring lawsuits. It does not say anything about whether specific abuse occurred.

Lawmakers previously had unanimously created a three-year window in which abuse victims could come forward. Justices said their action had disturbed the potential defendants' "vested rights."

The question for the court was who could set time limits for filing lawsuits, the court or the Legislature. A previous state constitution set limits, but the current one does not.

The lawsuit before the court involved Doug Bienvenu, who says he and several other boys were abused by the Rev. Kenneth Morvant, who was stationed at St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville. He said in 2018 that he had blocked the abuse out of his memory for decades — until discovering that Morvant was buried in a place of honor on church grounds.

After he filed suit, defendants said the statute of limitations for Morvant's actions had passed and that the lawsuit was time-barred. Lawmakers in 2021 and 2022 passed bills to give past abuse victims a window in which they could file claims.

Justices Scott Crichton and Piper Griffin said the previous ruling gave too much weight to the "vested ... rights." 

Crichton said the Legislature properly offered victims a means to seek justice.

"The unique and troublesome nature of this tort narrowly frames the set of allegations of a particular societal problem,  adversely affecting children at the hands of trusted adults and hidden from the public," he wrote. "Thus, I agree with the opinion’s focus that the legislation at issue here has a significant relationship to public safety, morals, and social welfare."

Griffin wrote this time that "Litigants should be afforded their day in court and the horrific nature of the allegations favor allowing the opportunity to present them to a trier of fact." 

State Attorney General Liz Murrill noted that it is "very rare" for the justices to reverse themselves and that she was grateful it had.

"These child victims of sexual abuse deserve their day in court," she said in a statement. "This is a win for victims of sexual assault and those who have been silenced for far too long."

The ruling extends to any abuse, not just that perpetrated by clergy. 

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said it was elated with the decision.

"Our hope is that those sitting in silence will come forward and abusers and those who enabled them responsible. Safer communities start with good legislation that exposes the wrong," SNAP spokesman Mike McDonnell said.

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