Our Editorial: Statute of limitations deserves debate

The Detroit News

Lawmakers are in a hurry to come to the aid of the women who suffered abuse from Larry Nassar while he was employed by Michigan State University. And while the victims deserve justice, the dramatic changes proposed to the state’s statute of limitations deserve much more debate.

Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, who spearheaded the package of bipartisan bills, has said she wants the legislation to “put fear into the heart” of sexual perpetrators — especially those who would harm children. But some of the bills, which have now passed the full Senate, are also striking fear into the hearts of university, business and local government leaders.

Republicans heard Tuesday from a plethora of groups concerned with extending the statute of limitations for decades and eliminating governmental immunity in cases of sexual abuse.

Top legal voices statewide and nationally are also cautioning against having such a wide window for civil lawsuits, as proposed.

And lawmakers need to listen. Even though the Senate made some adjustments Wednesday, the language didn’t substantially change.

A modified bill introduced by Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, extends the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit related to sexual misconduct to 30 years for minors and 10 years for adults (a more reasonable timeframe).

It would be retroactive back to 1997 for abused minors, and victims would have one year to file their claim.

The law currently allows for only three years for civil suits to be filed after the alleged abuse — or by the individual’s 19th birthday.

That is “just asinine,” says Knezek. “We need to change the statute of limitations to give individuals an appropriate amount of time and give them time to process what happened to them.”

O’Brien is also seeking to extend the statute of limitations for criminal cases by a similar amount of time, but it wouldn’t be retroactive.

Opening the statute of limitations to that extent could spur a large number of new lawsuits, putting many institutions (including those funded by taxpayers) on the hook with little recourse to defend themselves so long after the alleged abuse took place.

In a letter to lawmakers, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan warned “this would be one of the longest civil statute of limitations in the United States” and that the bills would “have lasting negative consequences for public and private entities across our state.”

Similarly, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce stated: “While the legislation is intended to address the atrocities and aftermath of the Larry Nassar situation, we are concerned that the bills go much further and would subject Michigan businesses and other entities not related to the Nassar situation to an indeterminate number of lawsuits and civil damages.”

Douglas Laycock, law professor at the University of Virginia Law School and vice president of the American Law Institute, also argues against such an extension, which would place Michigan among a minority of states.

“Thirty years is way too long,” Laycock says. “It can be nearly impossible to figure out what happened.”

Some other ideas have been floated, including having lawmakers tailor the statute of limitations language to serve only Nassar’s victims.

But perhaps the best way to move forward is for Michigan State to settle with victims directly. There is precedent for this.

In 2016, the Archdiocese of New York created an independent program to allow for victims of sexual abuse by clergy to apply for compensation from the church, regardless of when the abuse took place. Other dioceses have since adopted similar programs.

Despite the rush to help Nassar’s victims, lawmakers in the House need to slow down and make sure they get this piece of the legislation right.