My children are young enough that Elmo’s voice still carries considerable weight in our home, and so I was disheartened to hear last week’s allegations that Kevin Clash, Elmo’s creator and voice, had a sexual relationship with a teenager. The alleged victim recanted — perhaps in exchange for a settlement, the reports I’ve seen have been unclear — but the issue resurfaced yesterday with the filing of a lawsuit against Kevin Clash in New York by a second alleged victim. The New York Times has a copy of the complaint; the new alleged victim, now 24 years old, claims Clash trolled sex chat lines for teenagers, found the victim, and then engaged in a sexual relationship with him while he was only 15 years old.
I, of course, don’t know if the allegations are true or not, but I do know that the case has a big problem in terms of whether it’s likely to succeed: the statute of limitations in New York has already expired for all of the usual claims alleged in sexual abuse cases. Apparently in recognition of that, his lawyers have not raised any of the typical state tort law sexual abuse claims — for example, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress — but have instead filed for damages under a federal criminal statute most commonly used for child pornography victims. More on that in a moment.
As I discussed back when Jerry Sandusky was indicted, it is common — and understandable — for childhood sexual abuse victims to only be able to come forward many years after the abuse occurred, and thus often after the statute of limitations has run. In most states, including New York, the statute of limitations for tort claims is “tolled” (i.e., the clock doesn’t start running) until the victim turns 18 years old, but thereafter the victim only has a few years in which to file their civil claim. Few people turn 18 and suddenly come to terms with a traumatic event — the first few years in adulthood often isn’t enough time for a victim to process what has happened, and many victims repress memories about the assaults until their 30s, sometimes even later — and thus many victims never really have a chance to prove their case in court.
New York’s general statute of limitations for personal injury cases is three years, and New York law has not been kind to sexual abuse victims who failed to file a lawsuit within three years of their 18th birthday. In Zumpano v. Quinn, 6 N.Y.3d 666 (2006), former parishioners of two Catholic dioceses claimed they were sexually abused by priests but didn’t file a lawsuit until more than 20 years after they reached adulthood. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that the abuse was sufficient to trigger the statute of limitations for claims against both the priests and the dioceses that employed them, and so the statute ran three years after they turned 18 years old.
That’s the rule in the majority of states: the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases begins running right when the victim turns 18 years old. There are some exceptions — like the discovery rule, or tolling for fraudulent concealment — but they’re usually quite limited, and they’re often only applicable to the claims against the abuser’s employer. Earlier this year, for example, in the Poly Prep School Abuse case, a federal judge in New York allowed plaintiffs to move forward on their negligence and other claims related to abuse, on the theory that the school had allegedly “fraudulently concealed” their awareness of the abuser’s danger to the children. (Here’s the court order, which is a must-read for anyone interested in statute of limitations issues in sexual abuse cases, and here’s a New York Times story on the order.)
But I don’t see how Clash’s alleged victim could apply any of that court’s reasoning, which rests on the theory that the victim may not have had access to evidence showing the liability of the abuser’s employer, to his case; indeed, it seems his lawyers already concluded that his state tort claims were long gone, and so didn’t even attempt to allege any of the normal claims relating to sexual abuse. Instead, the alleged victim raises one and only one claim: “coercion and enticement to sexual activity in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422.”