E. Jean Carroll’s Victory: Using Lookback Windows for Sexual Abuse Claims

June 16, 2023
Jesse Broad-Cavanagh Carolyn Wheeler

On May 9, 2023, a New York jury returned a verdict in favor of E. Jean Carroll, awarding her roughly $5 million for her claims of defamation and battery against Donald Trump.  Of the final award, over $2 million was based on the jury’s having found Trump liable for sexually abusing Carroll in 1996.  The jury spent less than three hours deliberating to conclude that Trump should face legal repercussions for his criminal actions from over 25 years ago.

Although Trump is seeking to have the damages reduced, this victory was about clearing Carroll’s name more than anything else.  “This victory is not just for me but for every woman who has suffered because she was not believed,” Carroll said in a statement she released after receiving the final verdict.  “To finally have an entire jury be like, ‘No, we believe you’ – it’s incredibly vindicating,” echoed Samantha Holvey, a former Miss North Carolina in the Miss USA competition who, in 2016, courageously came forward with allegations regarding Trump’s mistreatment of pageant competitors.

Carroll’s victory shows that it is sometimes possible to hold abusers accountable for their criminal conduct, regardless of when the abuse occurred.  For Carroll, legal relief came through New York’s Adult Survivor Act.  The Act provides a one-year “lookback window” for people to seek civil relief for abuse they experienced after they turned 18 that would otherwise have been untimely.  Thanks to the Act’s lookback window, Carroll’s claims could be heard on their merits instead of being dismissed for being filed too late.  “E. Jean got into that courtroom because a collective group of survivors fought exhaustively and relentlessly to change the law,” said Alison Turkos, an activist and survivor who helped advocate for New York’s Act.

The victory also shows that a jury can look past stereotypes that have long permeated both civil and criminal trials for sexual abuse, even if an assault occurred years ago.  In court, Carroll navigated questions about her not saying “no,” not screaming, and not calling the police.  Outside the courtroom, Carroll faced hostile and derogatory statements from, among others, Trump himself.  In the end, Carroll surmounted these hurdles and told her side of what happened more than two decades ago.  The jury believed her.

In the wake of Carroll’s victory, countless survivors have reached out to ask her how to hold abusers legally accountable for their actions.  “They think, ‘Well, if the former President of the United States can be held liable for sexual abuse, well then maybe my stepfather, maybe my old boss, maybe my ex-boyfriend, maybe that man who lived down the street – maybe I can hold them accountable for ruining my life,” said Carroll.

Lookback Windows for Sexual Abuse

Individuals who wish to pursue a civil cause of action for sexual abuse are typically restricted by statutes of limitations, which vary by state.  A statute of limitations is a time limit that provides the latest possible date an individual may file a claim in court against her abuser.  Most states provide a relatively short statute of limitations that gives individuals only a few years to file a sexual abuse claim.  Laws such as New York’s lookback window act as an extension to the current statute of limitations.  If a person has been sexually abused, a lookback window may re-open a claim that had expired under previous temporal restrictions.

Proponents and advocates of lookback windows for sexual abuse cases frequently justify them based on the facts that it takes time for survivors to process abuse, confide in an attorney, and decide how to move forward.  It may also take time for an individual to understand the extent of injury caused by an assault.  New York and California currently provide lookback windows for individuals to pursue civil remedies for abuse they experienced after they turned 18.  A number of states also provide lookback windows for individuals to pursue civil remedies for abuse they experienced before they turned 18.

New York

In New York, the statute of limitations for a civil claim of sexual abuse is generally limited to three years if the abuse occurred prior to 2019.  Under that restriction, Carroll would have had to file suit prior to 2000.  However, the New York Adult Survivors Act (“ASA”) provides a one-year lookback window for sexual abuse survivors to bring civil claims, regardless of when the abuse occurred.  The lookback window opened on November 24, 2022, and lasts until November 23, 2023.  Under the ASA, survivors may sue both their abusers and covered entities that intentionally or negligently contributed to or failed to address the abuse.  Successful plaintiffs may recover economic, compensatory, and punitive damages.

To qualify for coverage under the ASA, individuals must have been 18 or older at the time of the abuse.  The ASA covers a range of abuses, including forcible touching, rape, sexual assault, and other sex-related offenses listed under Article 130 of the New York Penal Law.  Individuals may rely on the ASA even if a court dismissed their previous suits for sexual abuse as untimely.  Individuals who previously resolved or released their claims through settlement may not revive those claims under the ASA.  For additional information about New York’s ASA, see the blog post published by our colleagues, Jolena Jeffrey and Kelsey Woodford.

As of early May 2023, plaintiffs have filed 106 lawsuits under the ASA’s lookback window.  Carroll’s success under the ASA, combined with the lookback window’s looming deadline, suggests that this number will increase substantially over the coming months as more people learn about the ASA and the pathway it provides toward a measure of justice.  Individuals who are interested in seeking recovery under the ASA should contact an attorney as soon as possible to discuss possible resolution strategies in or outside of court.

California

California’s Sexual Abuse and Cover-Up Accountability Act (“the Act”) went into effect on January 1, 2023.  Before the enactment of the Act, California’s statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims was between three and ten years.  The Act opens a lookback window for survivors to file civil claims related to sexual assault that occurred between January 1, 2009, and January 1, 2019.  Under the lookback window, survivors who experienced assault within this time frame have until December 31, 2026, to file their claims.  If the sexual assault occurred after January 1, 2019, individuals must file suit by the latter of the following: (1) within ten years of the date of the assault; or (2) within three years of determining the assault caused injury.

To qualify for application of the Act’s window, survivors must have been 18 or older at the time of the abuse.  The Act covers a wide range of abuses as defined under Sections 243.4, 261, 264.1, 286, 287, or 289 of the California Penal Code, including attempts to commit any of the listed crimes.  The Act does not revive claims that were settled or litigated to finality prior to January 1, 2023.

In addition to suing the person who sexually assaulted them, survivors may be able to sue another party, company, or employer responsible for the assault under specific legal standards.  The Act opens a one-year window for suing “entities” responsible for engaging in a “cover up” of alleged instances of sexual assault.  Actions that show a “cover up” include but are not limited to nondisclosure agreements and confidentiality agreements. Claims under the Act’s “cover up” provision must be filed by December 31, 2023.

Other States

Over the past decade, a number of states have implemented temporary lookback windows and/or expanded statutes of limitations for claims related to sexual abuse.  The examples contained within this post are not exhaustive but provide a brief overview of a few of these laws.

Many states have focused legislative efforts on the revival of claims for sexual abuse that occurred prior to the plaintiff’s turning 18.  Most notably, Nevada, New Hampshire, Utah, and Vermont have eliminated the statute of limitations for claims against an abuser arising from the sexual abuse of a minor.  Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, and Nebraska have all eliminated the statute of limitations for claims arising from the sexual abuse of a minor that occurred after a specified date.  Arkansas’ lookback window for civil claims related to the sexual abuse of a minor is open through January 31, 2024.  In 2021, Louisiana passed a three-year window for claims related to the sexual abuse of a minor, and the law is under review by the Louisiana Supreme Court as of May 2023.  On April 11, 2023, Maryland signed the Child Victims Act of 2023, eliminating the statute of limitations for civil causes of action related to certain acts of sexual abuse towards minors.  Maryland’s Act goes into effect on October 1, 2023.

Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, and New Hampshire all provide pathways for survivors who experienced sexual abuse as adults to bring their claims without being limited by a statute of limitations.  Alaska does not impose a statute of limitations on plaintiffs alleging conduct that constitutes (1) felony sexual assault, (2) felony sex trafficking, or (3) felony human trafficking.  Colorado does not impose a statute of limitations on survivors of sexual abuse bringing claims that accrue on or after January 1, 2022.  Connecticut does not impose a statute of limitations on plaintiffs looking to recover for personal injury caused by sexual assault if the person legally at fault for the injury has been convicted of either sexual assault in the first degree or aggravated sexual assault in the first degree.  New Hampshire does not impose a statute of limitations on plaintiffs alleging sexual assault, felonious sexual assault, or aggravated sexual assault.

Conclusion

As demonstrated by E. Jean Carroll’s victory, lookback windows provide survivors with the opportunity to pursue legal remedies despite the fact that the original statute of limitations for their claims may have expired.  We recognize that litigation is not for everyone, and survivors may feel a variety of emotions about taking legal steps against their perpetrators.  Katz Banks Kumin has an experienced team of compassionate attorneys who can help you decide whether to pursue legal action.  If you believe you have a claim impacted by an expanded statute of limitations, or a claim revived by one of the look-back windows, please contact us to discuss potential steps forward.  The lookback windows don’t stay open indefinitely, so seeking prompt legal guidance is essential.

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