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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Woman's sexual abuse claim against public entity untimely, court rules; Alleged abuse happened nearly 20 years before lawsuit

By Angela Underwood | Sep 5, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) – A 4-3 decision from the California Supreme Court says a then-34-year-old woman who was allegedly molested in high school waited too long to file her lawsuit against a public entity.  

Four California Supreme Court justices concurred and three dissented regarding the rule for delayed discovery applying to childhood sexual abuse and government tort claims.

Latrice Rubenstein claimed her track coach molested her in high school from 1993-1994 but did not report the matter until 2012 when she was about 34 years old.

After Rubenstein's claim was denied, the 4th District Court of Appeal overturned the decision and gave Rubenstein a chance to move forward with her suit. However, the Supreme Court disagreed Aug. 28. 

The high court based much of its reasoning off of the Shirk v. Vista Unified School Dist. (2007), a similar case of a plaintiff alleging sexual molestation by a school teacher that was initially barred by the statute of limitations until 1986 statutory changes reignited limitation of such tort claims.

“On these facts, we held that, although the cause of action had been revived for purposes of the statute of limitations, the claim against the public entity remained untimely,” according to the Supreme Court majority opinion signed off by Justice Ming Chin. 

“The Shirk plaintiff’s 2003 claim was clearly untimely if the cause of action accrued for purposes of the claims requirement in November 1979 and did not reaccrue later,” Chin stated.

Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote a dissenting opinion in the case.

“The dissent complains that today’s holding, and presumably that of Shirk...effectively give public entities immunity from liability for lawsuits like this one,” Chin wrote, noting that when section 340.1 was amended by law without adjusting the claims requirement, "it took measured actions that protected public entities from potential liability for stale claims regarding conduct allegedly occurring before Jan. 1, 2009, in which the public entity had no ability to do any fiscal planning, or opportunity to investigate the matter and take remedial action.”

Regarding DeRose v. Carswell (1987), Werdegar said 1990 legislation that altered 340.1 was intended to replace the case ruling. 

“This reasoning, in my view, reflects a misunderstanding of Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1 and its relationship to the statutes that regulate the government claims process,” Werdegar wrote in her dissenting opinion.

“The Legislature’s landmark effort to expand victims’ access to the courts does not help Latrice Rubenstein, the majority reasons, because section 340.1 tolls, or suspends the running of, the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims rather than delaying those claims’ accrual," Werdegar added.

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