Apr 29, 2024

Louisiana Supreme Court strikes down ‘lookback window’ for child sex abuse victims

Written by Karina Shareen

On March 22, 2024, the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down a law that allowed victims to file civil lawsuits over sexual abuse that happened decades ago. The Court’s ruling, by a narrow margin given the 4-3 split, held that, La. Rev. Stat. § 9:2800.9, as amended by the revival provisions, cannot be retroactively applied to revive a victim’s prescribed cause of action as a defendant has a vested property right in accrued prescription. The Court held that retroactively applying La. Rev. Stat. § 9:2800.9 ran afoul of a defendant’s due process protections set forth in Louisiana’s Constitution. The Court’s recent ruling impacts hundreds of claims by child sexual abuse victims against the Diocese of Lafayette and the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ bankruptcy case. While the now-struck lookback window was not exclusively for clergy abuse claimants, but the “look back” provision prompted many new cases of that nature to be filed against Louisiana’s Catholic institutions and clerics who worked for them.

The three-year ‘lookback window’ law, was passed in June 2021 and allowed childhood sexual abuse victims additional time to file civil suits regardless of when the incidents are alleged to have occurred. The law was unanimously passed by the Louisiana legislature and signed by then-governor John Bel Edwards. Similar laws have been enacted in other states across the country, mostly with the effect of allowing a multitude of child sexual abuse victims to proceed forward with their cases. Louisiana now joins Utah as the second state to find such laws unconstitutional.

The Louisiana Supreme Court in their opinion emphasized that they “decline to upend nearly a half of a century’s jurisprudence that recognizes the unique nature of vested rights associated with liberative prescription, which inure to the benefit of both plaintiffs (protecting an accrued cause of action) and defendants (protecting a defense of accrued liberative prescription).”

The Court’s recent decision brings into question the authority of the Louisiana legislature to make laws and the presumption that the legislature acts within the limits of the Constitution. Here, the Louisiana Legislature created the three-year lookback widow with the specific intent to provide judicial relief for persons who suffered sexual abuse as a minor to sue their alleged abusers and other responsible parties, regardless of when the abuse occurred. See 202 La. Acts. No. 386, § 2; 2021 La. Acts. No. 322, § 2.

It is clear that the Louisiana legislature intended for the law to apply retroactively by creating a narrowly tailored judicial relief for a narrow category of tort victims as the legislation was passed unanimously in both the Louisiana House of Representatives and the Senate. This recent ruling does not affect measures eliminating deadlines to demand civil damages in cases of child sexual abuse that occurred after the law was enacted in 2021.

There is a possibility that plaintiffs' claims have not prescribed due to an interruption and/or suspension under the doctrine of contra non valentum, as noted by Judge Crichton in his concurring opinion. Contra non valentum is a jurisprudential exception to prescription created by Louisiana courts which means that prescription does not run against a person who could not bring his suit. If the plaintiffs are able to establish that their claims have not prescribed under the doctrine of contra non valentum, then plaintiffs’ claims are not time-barred by the court’s recent finding that the look-back period is unconstitutional.