Attorneys fighting for victims of decades-old child sexual abuse, the March 2023 Third District Court of Appeals’ ruling in Doe v. Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. represented a key victory for abuse survivors. The appellate panel gave the green light to a plaintiff pursuing a civil lawsuit against the Catholic church for liability of a priest’s alleged sexual abuse – despite the passage of more than 20 years. However, the archdiocese is now asking for the Florida Supreme Court to intervene and have the case dismissed, calling it “a case of exceptional importance for employers.”
Plaintiff in the case is a man who came forward about the sexual abuse he suffered on dozens of occasions from the time he was 7 until he was 9 by a priest. The complaint – which is against the church and does not name the priest – alleges the archdiocese was aware that the priest in question had an extensive history of child sexual abuse dating back to at least the late 1960s. The church allegedly not only concealed prior allegations, but continued to place this priest in positions where he still had access to children. Nothing was done to prevent further abuse, the complaint alleges.
The 3rd DCA’s ruling held that the alleged victim could not sue the church for negligence because there is a 4-year statute of limitations on negligence claims, per F.S. 95.11(9). (Or at least, there was. A recent change to the law has shortened that window down to just 2 years.) However, the court did reverse the circuit court’s dismissal of a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against the church, per F.S. 95.11(7), which references intentional tort claims based on abuse. That provision of the law was passed in 2010 law and lifted certain statute of limitation restrictions on cases that involve sexual battery of victims younger than 16. Rather than a hardline 4-year statute of limitations, claims brought forth on this basis may commence whichever of the following occurs latest:
- Within 7 years after the victim reaches the age of majority OR
- Within 4 years after the injured person leaves the dependency of the abuser OR
- Within 4 years of discovering both the injury and causal relationship between the injury of abuse.
Finding that the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress was rooted in the intentional tort of abuse, the 3rd DCA applied this statute, and concluded the plaintiff’s intentional tort claim survived until 2017, which was 7 years after he turned 18.
Furthermore, the court rejected the Catholic church’s argument that such claims could be only made against an institution, rather than an individual.
As our West Palm Beach sexual abuse lawyers can explain, most civil sexual abuse claims are against institutions – employers, schools, property owners, sports organizations, and churches.
Because while victims can directly sue their abuser in civil court, it’s usually pointless unless they’re independently wealthy. That’s because while civil lawsuits can be filed for criminal acts like sexual abuse, assault, and battery, these are intentional torts – and insurance companies generally won’t cover intentional tort claims. Third party third-party claims are both valid and reasonable because these are people and places and organizations that owed a duty of care to protect the victim – and failed in that duty. They are not expected to predict and prevent every harm from happening, but they are expected to take reasonable precautions to protect vulnerable populations in their care. When they don’t do that and someone gets hurt, they can be held legally responsible.
Sometimes Florida sexual abuse claims against third-parties – employers in particular – are rooted in a legal doctrine called respondeat superior. That’s Latin for “let the master answer,” and it allows employers to be held legally responsible if their employee causes harm to another while the employee is acting in the course and scope of employment. It’s essentially a negligence claim, even though it’s not alleging direct negligence by the employer.
But this case is a little different. The plaintiff’s surviving claim is for intentional infliction of emotional distress – which IS an intentional tort, rather than a negligence claim. That likely means if the plaintiff wins, it will be the Catholic church paying up rather than any insurers it has. Obviously, the church wants to avoid opening the door to that precedent.
In its appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, the Archdiocese of Miami argues that the 3rd DCA’s ruling conflicts with a 2016 ruling by its sister court, the 4th District Court of Appeals. That court was weighing a Broward County case against the same archdiocese involving allegations of child sexual abuse by priests in the 1980s. The trial court dismissed the claim, ruling intentional torts should only be filed against the individual who intentionally did wrong, not third parties. That finding was upheld by the 4th DCA, and the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the follow-up appeal.
On the flip side, the plaintiff alleges that the claim in question DOES allege direct and intentional wrong by the archdiocese itself – namely, the covering up of the abuse, the continuation of the priest’s role in working with children, and the failure to protect children in its care.
Our Palm Beach sexual abuse attorneys fight for the rights and protection of child sexual abuse victims, and we’ll be closely following this case if the Florida Supreme Court agrees to hear the appeal.
Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.
Archdiocese of Miami asks Florida Supreme Court to hear abuse case, June 29, 2023, Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida
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Can Schools Be Liable for Florida Sexual Abuse Facilitated by District Laptops? June 1, 2023, Palm Beach Sexual Abuse Lawyer Blog