Legal update: New laws related to childhood sexual assault
Two new laws extend the timeline for filing claims against perpetrators
Following in the footsteps of the federal government’s Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act of 2022 (Public Law No. 117-176), which abolishes the statute of limitations for certain civil causes of action related to childhood sexual abuse, the California Legislature passed two statutes that make it easier for persons to file claims against perpetrators of childhood sexual assault (CSA), and other parties, including employers, who may be held legally responsible for such acts. Specifically, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 452 (Ch. 655, Statutes of 2023) and Senate Bill 558 (Ch. 887, Statutes of 2023), both of which took effect on Jan. 1, 2024. These laws will undoubtedly have the effect of allowing claims to be filed against school districts and county offices of education beyond current time limits.

Both AB 452 and SB 558, which received just one vote opposing the two bills, reflect the Legislature’s recognition of the acute trauma that survivors of CSA experience and a decision to remove barriers that prevent such survivors from seeking redress against their abusers and other responsible persons and institutions that may have concealed or ignored their claims. These laws continue a pattern in California’s efforts to support survivors of sexual assault. Over the years, California has engaged in various reforms of its CSA-related laws, including amending Government Code section 905 (SB 640 (2008)) to exempt childhood sexual abuse from the claims presentation requirement of the Government Tort Claims Act. In 2018, the Legislature amended Government Code section 935 (SB 1053) to clarify the legislative intent to make SB 640’s exemption applicable to the claims presentation requirements set by local public entities, such as school districts. The following year, AB 218 (Ch. 861, Statutes of 2019) expanded the definition of childhood sexual abuse, changed the reference to it to “CSA” (formerly known as childhood sexual abuse), and extended the time limit for initiating legal action to recover damages for CSA to a plaintiff’s 40th birthday or five years from when the plaintiff discovered or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury they suffered was caused by a sexual assault. AB 218 also enhanced damages recoverable by a plaintiff if a responsible institution engaged in a cover up of CSA and provided a three-year window in which expired claims were revived.

Requirements of new laws
Keeping with the described pattern of removing legal barriers to addressing sexual assault, AB 452 amended Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1 to completely eliminate the time limit for commencing an action to recover civil damages for any act of CSA that is committed on or after Jan. 1, 2024. AB 452 also removed the restriction on a plaintiff’s ability after their 40th birthday to commence an action against any person or entity whose intentional, wrongful or negligent act resulted in the plaintiff’s injury. Prior to the amendment, such an action after the plaintiff’s 40th birthday could only be commenced if the person or entity knew, had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice of a misconduct that creates a risk of CSA by an employee, volunteer, representative or agent of the person or entity. Per AB 452, as of Jan. 1, 2024, the requirement for such knowledge or notice no longer exists.
close up of hand writing with a fountain pen with gavel, scales, and books in the background
Both AB 452 and SB 558 reflect the Legislature’s recognition of the acute trauma that survivors of CSA experience and a decision to remove barriers that prevent such survivors from seeking redress.
SB 558, on the other hand, creates a new statute by adding Code of Civil Procedure section 340.11 that addresses the statute of limitation for acts of CSA that occurred before Jan. 1, 2024. For such acts of CSA, a plaintiff is required to commence an action for recovery of damages no later than their 40th birthday or five years from the date they discovered or reasonably should have discovered that their psychological injury was caused by the sexual assault. SB 558 also expands retroactively the definition of CSA to include acts proscribed by Penal Code sections 311.1 and 311.2, such as the sale, production, distribution or exhibition of obscene matter depicting children engaging in or simulating sexual conduct (child sexual abuse material, or CSAM). For actions involving such CSAM-related violations, SB 558 extends the statute of limitation to the plaintiff’s 40th birthday or within 10 years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered the existence of the obscene matter. SB 558 also took effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

With these laws, school districts and county offices of education will potentially be exposed to more liability, defense costs and monetary damages that they will only be able to mitigate in the future by implementing multifaceted measures to protect their students from harm. Among such measures should be the implementation of rigorous hiring practices that include verification of employee work location and residence, effective monitoring and supervision of students and employees, ongoing training for employees, and adoption and enforcement of clear and unambiguous policies.