Sexual Abuse Lawsuits: Are Greedy Lawyers Behind It All?

I don’t buy the thesis of this post: that greedy lawyers are behind a crisis of sexual abuse lawsuits that is making present day parishioners pay for past acts that a present-day consciousness has inflated in magnitude.  Lawyers as a class are a hard group to like, but they are not to blame for sexual abuse and cover-ups, nor are they to blame for a public policy decision to compensate these lawsuits highly.

The post is not without the germ of a point, which could have been developed more effectively by comparing the settlements and awards in clergy sexual abuse cases with wrongful death settlements and verdicts or other statutory and common law torts.  In Oregon, for example, a wrongful death case is subject to a cap on non-economic damages, but sex abuse claims are not, making a sexual abuse claim potentially more valuable than a suit over a person’s death.  The statute of limitations issue has also become something of a joke: even where states haven’t gone as far as California in actually eliminating the statute of limitations, many judges interpret it so subjectively as to render it meaningless.  Typical statutes of limitations require a lawsuit to commence within several years after the victim knew or should have known of the connection between injuries suffered and the abuse that occurred. 

A reductionist reading of such statutes can be stated like this: a victim can never fully know or realize the connection between injury and abuse, because each knew day brings fresh pain and a new perspective on it.  Sounds absurdly subjective and completely untestable by any empirical standard, doesn’t it?  Yet that is exactly how many judges interpret statutes of limitations.

I don’t deny that the events alleged in sex abuse statutes are often real, or that society is free to  decide what its policy priorities are to be and to rank the compensation of these priorities.  And if legislatures decide there should be no statute of limitations for one type of tort but there should be one for all others, they are free to do that as well.  However, too often the discussion on sexual abuse focuses on emotion, contains a disturbing component of glorifying victim status, and lacks examination of the policy implications of compensating this type of tort more highly than many others.  If we’re going to do something, fine.  Let’s just first understand what it is we are doing.

Full disclosure — my perspective derives in part from my experience: I have provided a great deal of coverage advice to insurers regarding sexual abuse allegations and have defended several insureds in these kinds of cases as well.  I have not represented the victim of abuse in any lawsuit.

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One Response to Sexual Abuse Lawsuits: Are Greedy Lawyers Behind It All?

  1. Shelby

    I came back from a deposition in a suit between the Archdiocese of Portland and its insurance carriers over coverage of sex abuse by priests, to read this. FWIW I agree with your general points.