12-year statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims applies to suits against state, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last week that the twelve-year statute of limitations for filing a suit in sexual abuse cases also applies to civil suits against the state brought in the Ohio Court of Claims. The case before the Court involved Uranus Watkins, who alleged that she was sexually abused by Department of Youth Services employees when she was in custody at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility between 2000-2001. The plaintiff filed suit in 2012. She had turned 18 in 2004.

In 2006, the General Assembly amended O.R.C. 2305.111, extending the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse to file claims to twelve years after the victim reaches the age of majority. Under prior law, the statute of limitations was limited to one year, however under the discovery rule it was tolled until the victim discovered that he or she had been a victim of abuse. This was of significance for those dealing with repressed memories of abuse.  Although the amended statute provides this twelve year statute of limitations, O.R.C. 2743.16 has a two-year statute of limitations for all civil suits against the state. Because Watkins' case was this sort of suit and was filed more than two years after the alleged events occurred, the Court of Claims dismissed the case.

The Supreme Court found that O.R.C. 2305.111 was a specific statute that applied to sexual abuse claims against the state and that it trumped  O.R.C. 2743.16, which was a general statute that had been in place long before 2305.111 was enacted. The Court held that, "a specific statute, enacted later in time than a preexisting general statute, will control where a conflict between the two arises." As such, victims of sexual abuse by the state are permitted to file suits within the twelve year statute of limitation, rather than the two.

This decision did not settle whether Watkins could proceed with her case, however. Because the alleged abuse took place before amendments to ORC 2305.111 extended the statute of limitations, Watkins' case needed to be analyzed under the prior law. If, under the previous standard, Watkins did not discover the abuse until after the statute was amended in 2006, then the twelve year statute of limitations could apply. If she discovered it prior to that date, then the statute of limitations began on the date she learned of the abuse. The Court remanded the case to the trial court to deal with that issue. The Court also declined to rule on Equal Protection claims Watkins brought, as they were moot once the Court ruled on the statutory question.

Justice Pfeifer penned the decision for the Court. He was joined by Justices O’Connor and O’Neill, and Judge Mary Eileen Kilbane, who was substituting for Justice Lanzinger, who had recused herself. Justices O'Donnell, Kennedy and French dissented.

For more information about this case see this article from Court News Ohio and the online docket, available, here.