Ressler & Tesh Secure Landmark Victory in WA Child Sexual Abuse Supreme Court Case

The Law Offices of Ressler & Tesh secured a landmark victory that may significantly impact the outcomes of Washington child sexual abuse cases for decades to come.

The landmark case addresses the three-year statute of limitations applicable to lawsuits brought to recover damages for childhood sexual abuse, and it clarifies when that three-year period begins.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are able to file a lawsuit to recover damages for that abuse until they are age 21, since the three-year statute of limitations does not begin to run until they reach the age of 18.  They will also know their abuser, so they will know who they can sue if they wish to bring a lawsuit against the person who committed the abuse.  But what happens if they do not find out until years or decades later that another party – such as the State of Washington, as the result of negligence in its foster care system – is also legally responsible for the abuse?

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled that under Washington law, the three-year statute of limitations for bringing a civil lawsuit based upon childhood sexual abuse does not begin to run with respect to a specific defendant until the victim discovers the causal link between the problems and conditions they are suffering from and the defendant’s wrongful act for which the suit is being brought.  Therefore, if the lawsuit is brought against the abuser, the relevant wrongful act is the abuse.  But if the lawsuit is brought against the institution that failed to protect the survivor from the abuse (like DSHS or DCYF for example), the relevant wrongful act is the negligence of that institution.  It is now clear that a survivor of childhood sexual abuse has three years to bring a lawsuit against a negligent defendant, once he or she understands the connection between the negligence and his or her problems or conditions, regardless of when he or she had understood the connection between the abuse and those problems or conditions.

The Case Facts 

Timothy Jones was a victim of childhood sexual abuse while in the care of the Washington foster care system. The Supreme Court of Washington notes in its opinion (the “Opinion”) that in 2006 Timothy told a counselor that he had been abused between 1998 and 2006 by Price Nick Miller Jr. Mr. Miller was a friend of Timothy’s family, and Timothy was placed in the care of Mr. Miller for approximately one month in 2003 by the Washington State Department of Social & Health Services (“DSHS”).  DSHS removed Timothy from this care after it was informed of inappropriate behavior by Mr. Miller.

Nonetheless, it appears from the Opinion that Mr. Miller continued to abuse Timothy.

In 2006 Timothy informed a counselor of the ongoing abuse, and in 2008 Mr. Miller was convicted of raping Timothy and sentenced to prison. Around this time, a lawsuit against Mr. Miller was brought on behalf of Timothy, which was settled.

In 2017, as the result of a discussion with a romantic partner and an unrelated news story about childhood sexual abuse, Timothy learned that he might have a case against the State for negligently failing to protect him from being sexually abused by Mr. Miller. Later that year, he contacted our firm, and we began investigating his case.

Tragically, Timothy took his own life in 2018 while that investigation was underway.  On behalf of Timothy’s probate estate, our firm sued the State of Washington in 2020 for its role in the abuse suffered by Timothy, which was within three years after Timothy became aware that the State may be liable in part for his abuse.

The Legal Issue

This case centers on whether the case filed on behalf of Timothy’s estate was timely brought, since it was filed more than three years after Timothy reached the age of 21, and more than three years after Timothy was abused.

The law in question, RCW 4.16.340(1)(c), states that claims based on childhood sexual abuse must be brought within three years from the time the victim discovers that the act caused the injury for which the claim is being brought.

In our case, the State of Washington argued that because Timothy knew of the abuse well before 2017, he was required to bring the case against all those responsible for the abuse within the initial three-year time period, which ended when Timothy turned 21.

Conversely, we argued that the statute applies to potential defendants individually. In other words, Timothy (and other childhood abuse victims) have 3 years to bring a lawsuit from the date they first become aware that a defendant’s negligence was a cause of the problems or conditions they are seeking damages for in the lawsuit. Since Timothy did not become aware that the State’s negligence was responsible in part for the problems he was experiencing as an adult until 2017, and because we filed a lawsuit less than three years later (in 2020), we argued that the lawsuit was timely filed. Unfortunately, the trial court dismissed Timothy’s case on summary judgment, finding that Timothy’s estate did not timely file a claim since he was aware of the abuse well before 2017.  The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal, and we appealed the decision to the Washington Supreme Court.

The Washington Supreme Court’s Ruling

The Washington Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and ruled in our client’s favor. The court clarified that the State’s negligence constituted a distinct cause of action separate from a cause of action based on the act of sexual abuse itself. As a result, the statute of limitations did not commence until Timothy became aware that the State’s negligence led in part to the abuse he suffered, which was in 2017.

More specifically, the Washington Supreme Court found that the relevant three-year statute of limitations does not begin running at the same time as  to all claims arising out of the abuse. Instead, the three-year period may begin running at different times as to the individual claim being brought. If the claim is brought by the plaintiff survivor directly against the abuser, the beginning of the three-year period is based on the connection between the abuse and the problems and conditions at issue in the lawsuit. On the other hand, if the claim is being brought against an institution that negligently failed to protect the plaintiff from that abuse, the beginning of the three-year period is based on the connection between the negligence and the relevant problems and conditions. In other words, it is the specific wrongful act committed by the defendant (sexual abuse or negligence) that matters when determining when the statute of limitations begins to run. Because the lawsuit brought by Timothy’s estate was against the State, and because the estate brought the claim within three years of Timothy discovering the causal connection between the State’s negligence and the problems and conditions experienced by Timothy as an adult, the lawsuit was timely brought.

The Washington Supreme Court Opinion may be found here.

Why This Lawsuit is Critical to Those Sexually Abused in Foster Care in Washington

For those sexually abused in foster care, there is no way to easily know that their abuse may have been due to the negligence of the State of Washington and its foster care system. As an example, an abuse victim may not know that a foster care parent was a known sex offender, and thus should have never had children placed in his or her care, for many years after the abuse occurred. Now, it is clear under Washington law that a person who has only recently learned that institutional negligence may have been a cause of his or her childhood sexual abuse can bring a lawsuit to recover compensation for all problems and conditions caused by that negligence.

We are proud not only to prevail on behalf of Timothy’s estate in this case, but also to help change Washington law so that others who were sexually abused as minors will also be able to hold accountable all those responsible for the abuse.

Have you or a loved one been abused while in foster care?

If so, please contact us to learn how we can help. We accept foster care abuse cases on a contingency fee basis, so there is no fee unless compensation is recovered.  We also advance all other litigation costs and expenses.

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