The Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School (CJ&D) has long been a champion for the country’s civil justice system. Part of their work involves raising public awareness of the insidious nature of “tort reform,” and the effects that it has on all of us.
Their latest in-depth publication focuses on survivors of sexual assault. Emily Gottlieb (Deputy Director for Law & Policy) and Joanne Doroshow (Executive Director) sought to show “how civil cases can help sexual assault survivors in ways the criminal justice system cannot. They can assist survivors with the financial burdens of an assault as well as provide victims with a forum to hold perpetrators directly accountable.”
The result is “The Importance of Civil Justice to Sexual Assault Survivors and the Devastating Consequences of ‘Tort Reform,’” a comprehensive research study outlining the uphill battle so many survivors face – and the dangers posed when the law sides with the perpetrators, not the victims, by limiting the amount of damages a survivor may be awarded.
What the study found
CJ&D’s research found that there were two measures which hurt survivors the most:
- Limiting the amount of money a plaintiff in a civil case can receive, and
- Short statutes of limitations for bringing a claim.
It’s not about “getting rich”
Legislators often, and wrongfully, hail tort reform measures as a way of putting an end to “runaway juries,” depicting victims as opportunistic.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As Gottlieb and Doroshow explain, “The criminal justice system also doesn’t hold perpetrators or culpable third parties… directly accountable to victims – but civil cases do.” Limiting damage caps not only revictimizes people who have been hurt, but it removes incentive for those third parties.
Look at the church or our school systems, for example. For years, those in power in both institutions have been fully aware of sexual assault by teachers and clergy people, yet both have spent time and money to cover them up: schools, by “passing the trash” to other districts, and the church by sending abuser priests to other parishes. Thousands of people have suffered irreparable harm in the wake of these decisions.
But when they lose money – well, suddenly, changes begin to occur. It’s no different from Takata’s defective airbags: the company hid information about the dangers because Takata assumed it would cost less to pay a few claims than it would to recall the products.
Tort reform takes away that tool. It makes it harder for victims to hold their attackers accountable, in a way that has a meaningful impact on both the abuser and the third-parties who enabled him/her.
Short statutes make it harder to bring a claim
The decision to file a lawsuit is a deeply personal one. It takes some people years to come to grips with what has happened to them. When the laws limit the amount of time victims have a file a claim, the chances increase that the victim will end up missing the deadline. In some cases, that person may also be barred from suing third parties entirely.
What California is doing right
Over the past few years, California has worked on adjusting its statutes of limitations for survivors to make claims, and has eliminated the statute of limitations for crimes like rape. Unlike other states, we have no damage caps for survivors of sexual assault.
We’re proud of the steps California has taken, but we know that there is much work to do. Thanks to groups like CJ&D, women, men and children around the country are learning more about their rights, and what they can do to be better allies.
We encourage to read the report in full, and to contact your legislators about the harm that tort reform causes. Taylor & Ring is fully behind the work of the CJ&D, and continues to support the individuals and groups which fight on behalf of sexual assault survivors in California and throughout the country.