Revived ‘hidden predator’ bill stirs legal worries at legislative hearing

Tim Lee (right) speaks on behalf of victims as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Barry Fleming (left) and other members of a subcommittee listen at a Tuesday hearing. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

A broad range of nonprofit and business organizations are decrying a renewed push to give Georgians who were sexually abused as children more ability later in life to sue their abusers and the employers who shielded them.

But victim advocates, and a few victims themselves, also turned out to a legislative hearing held Tuesday to voice their support, urging lawmakers to heed their desires for justice rather than keep state law as is.

The focus of Tuesday’s hearing at the state Capitol was HB 479, dubbed the “Hidden Predator Act of 2019.” The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Heath Clark, a Warner Robins Republican, would raise the age to bring a civil suit from 23 to 38 and give victims of any age living in Georgia up to one year to file suit for any past abuse. If lawmakers had passed HB 479 this year, the one-year clock would have started July 1.

It’s that one-year period – rather than the age limit – that drew the strongest criticism from several groups Tuesday, ranging from attorneys representing local nonprofits and churches to restaurants and other business owners. They represent a spectrum of opposition broader than just the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church, whose lobbying efforts helped block a similar bill in the 2018 legislative session.

“You open a window of 12 months … you’re going to have a big dump in our legal system,” said Emily Matson, a Rome attorney representing several nonprofits affiliated with local churches. “There’s a lot of injustice that is going to occur as a result of that.”

Lawmakers also heard from a handful of sexual abuse victims, including Tim Lee. The former Paulding County resident, who claims he was abused by a teacher when he attended Darlington School in Rome in the 1980s, is one of 18 plaintiffs separately suing the school in Floyd County Superior Court over claims that allegations of the teacher’s abuse went ignored.

“Sexual abuse causes depression, anxiety, addiction and, as we have seen, suicide,” Lee told lawmakers Tuesday. “The passage of time should not, in and of itself, insulate institutions from liability for their actions regardless of whether the harm is cancer, physical injury or sexual abuse.”

Darlington has sought to have the cases dismissed since the statute of limitations has expired for all 18 plaintiffs, Robert Berry, a Rome attorney representing the school, said by phone Tuesday.

Current state law, which was broadened slightly in 2015, allows childhood sexual abuse victims to bring civil suits either before they turn age 23 or within two years of becoming aware of abuse. Victim advocates and experts in childhood trauma point to studies that have found the age of 52 is when many adults who have suppressed painful memories begin to disclose that they were sexually abused as children.

Opponents, though, homed in Tuesday largely on potential risks for churches, schools and nonprofits in Georgia forced to defend against lawsuits stemming from abuse that in some cases may have happened decades ago.

Several people said they worry local social organizations and businesses could risk going bankrupt if Georgia authorizes the one-year window to sue for victims of any age, called a “look back” or “reviver” provision. Businesses like restaurants that lack the financial wherewithal to pay court fees could also be hit hard by lawsuits, said Karen Bremer, the CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

“I ask you to keep your focus on the criminal, not the company,” Bremer said at the hearing.

Some victim advocates sought to counter those claims Tuesday by pointing to other states that recently enacted laws opening up the one-year period for claims. New York, for example, saw a spike of nearly 400 child sex abuse lawsuits filed the first day that the state’s one-year window took effect in August 2019, but that number has fallen sharply since then, said Emma Hetherington, the director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law. Around 460,000 civil cases were filed in New York total in 2018, Hetherington noted.

The UGA clinic’s financial benefactor, Atlanta attorney Marlan Wilbanks, urged lawmakers Tuesday not to feel swayed by the same arguments that lobbyists used to kill an earlier version of the Hidden Predator Act in the 2018 legislative session.

“We need a (one-year) window because there’s never been a window that applies to entities in Georgia,” Wilbanks said. “If you want to change behavior, you have to hit their pocketbooks.”

A 2015 law created a two-year window for claims against individuals that prompted 14 lawsuits total, Hetherington said.

Clark’s bill also drew criticism from victim advocates concerned that the the bill sets the bar too high for evidence needed to file suit against organizations. That could dissuade victims from ever seeking legal remedy.

Clark said he is open to setting the statute of limitation beyond the age of 38 and tweaking evidence the standards required to sue organizations.

“I’m here to work with the committee to pass something that has teeth and can get through the process,” Clark said during Tuesday’s hearing.

 

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College.