Court ruling could make it harder for abused minors to sue

Posted at 4:29 PM, Oct 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-07 18:29:05-04

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho Supreme Court ruling could make it harder for juveniles molested by state officials to sue their abusers.

In Monday’s unanimous decision, the court said five men who said they were sexually abused as youths at a juvenile detention center can’t sue the state because they waited too long to file a tort claim — even though they were well within the statute of limitations for the lawsuit itself.

The ruling means that the men’s lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections and against two former staffers in their role as state employees must be dismissed, the high court found. Still, the portion of the lawsuit that is against the two former staffers as individuals can go forward, Justice John Stegner wrote for the unanimous court.

In the lawsuit, the men said they were sexually abused by two staffers and a medical intern while they lived at the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections’ detention center in Nampa.

The men said IDJC officials were in a position to stop the abuse, but failed to do so, and that as a result they’ve endured emotional distress, pain and suffering.

One of the former staffers named in the lawsuit, Julie McCormick, was convicted of lewd conduct for sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy at the detention center. Another former staffer, Valerie Lieteau, was charged with sexual battery and other crimes after prosecutors said she had improper contact with a child at the detention center, but she pleaded not guilty and those charges were later dismissed by the court.

The men filed the lawsuit within five years of turning 18, but they did not file a tort claim first because they believed it wasn’t required.

At the heart of the decision is two separate Idaho laws: The Idaho Tort Claim Act, which says people who want to sue a government entity must first give the government notice in the form of a tort claim; and the statute of limitations for sex-abuse lawsuits, which details how long people who are sexually abused as minors have to seek justice through the civil courts.

The statute of limitations for sex abuse survivors says that if they want to sue, they have to do so within five years of the time they reach the age of 18 or within five years of the time they reasonably discover the impact the abuse has had on their life.

The tort claim act, however, says juveniles have to file a notice of a lawsuit within six months of their 18th birthday or within six years of the injury, whichever comes first. Adults, meanwhile, must file tort claims within six months of the injury or when it was reasonably discovered, whichever comes later.

The Idaho Supreme Court said that because the statute of limitations law didn’t specifically carve out an exemption from the tort claim act, both laws must apply. That, Stegner wrote, means the men can’t sue the state because they didn’t file a timely tort claim.

“We are mindful of the impact of this conclusion on sexual abuse claims by minors,” Stegner wrote, noting that it “will likely result in the dismissal of potentially meritorious claims, through no fault of the minors.”

The justice said the case raises “serious issues” about the laws, because it creates a situation where the statute of limitations doesn’t even begin to run until years after the tort claim deadline has already passed.

“Nevertheless, this court is obligated to apply the plain language of the unambiguous statute,” Stegner wrote.