Senate OK’s Nassar bills after changing lawsuit rules

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Michigan Senate on Wednesday evening approved a sweeping sexual assault prevention package inspired by the Larry Nassar abuse scandal after tightening but retaining provisions allowing victims more time to sue for past incidents.

The revised package still proposes retroactively extending the statute of limitations for victims, but only for those who were under 18 at the time they were sexually assaulted. They would have a one-year window to sue for any incident dating back to 1997, as opposed to 1993 under the original proposal.

Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, said the legislation delivers “justice for the children who have been sexually assaulted,” including those abused by Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics sports doctor convicted of multiple felonies and accused of assaulting hundreds of girls and young women under the guise of medical treatment.

“Michigan is not a home to pedophiles,” O’Brien said. “It is a place for children. We will protect you, defend you and stand up for you.”

Changes made Wednesday followed intense lobbying from university, local government and business groups who had warned that retroactively extending the civil statute of limitations for up to 30 years could lead to a flood of difficult-to-defend lawsuits across the state.

While the retroactive provisions were modified, seven lawmakers still voted against the the civil liability measure that had unanimously passed committee. State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, called the package “undefined, dangerous and extremely precedent setting.”

Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, proposed an unsuccessful amendment to strip retroactive provisions from several bills, arguing they violate the Michigan Constitution.

“We need to make sure we don’t add our Constitution to the list of Dr. Nassar’s victims,” Colbeck said.

O’Brien said courts have affirmed the constitutionality of retroactively extending the statute of limitation in civil cases.

Changes made Wednesday would likely prevent some Nassar victims who were adults when he abused them from suing, but O’Brien noted that 1997 matches the first alleged instance of a Nassar victim attempting to alert a coach at MSU.

Sponsoring Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, said the retroactive legislation would ensure that more sexual abuse victims have “access to justice.”

The legislation, which would also strengthen mandatory reporter laws and extend the criminal statute of limitations in future cases, now heads to the House, where Knezek said he hopes it will be improved to further benefit victims.

But the package will likely face continued opposition from groups who have raised concerns about potential lawsuits. Their complaints, voiced in a series of letters to lawmakers, delayed Senate consideration by at least one day.

The Michigan Catholic Conference on Wednesday praised some aspects of the approved package but called the civil retroactivity bill “dangerous public policy that will do nothing to protect children today but rather subject a vast portion of the State of Michigan to currently barred civil actions.”

Senate Republicans debated the package behind closed doors for several hours Wednesday, and Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof invited interim MSU President John Engler to the Capitol to discuss the bills and other issues.

With rumors swirling that the package could sputter or some bills could be left behind, the mother of a Nassar victim drove to the Capitol in an attempt to speak with lawmakers considering the plan.

“We don’t have a lobbyist,” said Valerie von Frank of Okemos, who is part of a support group of parents she said were “distraught” over legislative delays.

“I think a lot of the conversation seems to have been on what the lobbyists have to say,” she said outside the Senate chambers. “We’re just a group of parents with children who are hurting, and we’re hurting too.”

Under the legislation, a minor victim would have up to 30 years to sue over future assault, and an adult victim would have up to 10 years to sue. This is an increase from the current law allowing lawsuits for up to three years after an incident or the victim’s 19th birthday.

The revised package also tightened language designed to limit claims of governmental immunity in sexual assault lawsuits against institutions such as MSU. Immunity would be stripped only if an institution was negligent in hiring or training, failed to follow set procedures or should have known of the sexual assault and failed to report it to law enforcement.

As The Detroit News reported, at least 14 MSU representatives were warned about Nassar’s behavior over more than two decades.

A main provision in the package would expand an existing mandatory reporter law by requiring university employees or youth sports coaches to alert authorities to suspected child abuse or neglect. Those who fail to do so could face a maximum two years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.

The legislation would also waive any statute of limitations for prosecutors to bring second-degree sexual conduct charges against an individual accused of assaulting a minor, matching current law for first-degree cases.

For third-degree assault against a minor, prosecutors could bring criminal charges up to the victim’s 48th birthday or 30 years after the defendant is identified by DNA evidence.

O’Brien said she is working to inform members of the state House about the bills as they head to the lower chamber for additional consideration.

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