Raleigh, N.C. — The state House will likely vote this week on a bill to lengthen the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits by victims of childhood sexual abuse.
House Bill 585 had its first hearing Wednesday morning, passing the House Judiciary IV Committee by a unanimous vote.
According to sponsor Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, although there is no statute of limitations on criminal charges for child sexual abuse, state law allows only a three-year window on civil suits. Child victims can bring suit only if they're 21 or younger.
The measure would raise the cutoff age for civil suits by victims of childhood sexual abuse to 40 years old. Victims who are 40 years old today would have a one-year window.
"Oftentimes, there's a lot of trauma, there’s a lot of distress, there’s a lot of chaos that takes time to sort out for a victim," Riddell told the committee, adding that many victims don't come to terms with child sex abuse until they're well into adulthood. "This gives closure to victims by giving them an extended opportunity to face their criminal predator, adult to adult."
The committee also heard from sexual abuse prevention advocate Deborah Diener, who said the change could help to expose more serial predators who might abuse scores of children over the course of a lifetime.
Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, asked why, if there's no criminal statute of limitations, victims wouldn't simply seek justice through criminal prosecution.
"A civil remedy is not quite as taxing as a criminal court procedure," Riddell explained, adding that a criminal trial would also likely involve a jury, while a civil case might not. "It's got a little bit lower bar of proving culpability."
While civil damages would not put a predator behind bars, Riddell added, a district attorney could also choose to bring separate criminal charges if the evidence is strong enough.
The bill could be on the House floor for a vote as early as Wednesday afternoon.