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Virginia Decision in Child Sexual Abuse Case Opens the Door for Other Victims to File Suits Against Third Parties
Chaffin Luhana LLP
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Back in 2011, the State of Virginia passed a law extending the statute of limitations for sexual abuse civil lawsuits from two to 20 years. The law went into effect on July 1, 2011. It allows victims to file lawsuits against their attackers and others who may have covered up the abuse for up to 20 years after the victim turns 18, or in the case of repressed memories, from when he or she realizes the abuse.

Two former victims of childhood sexual abuse took advantage of this new law to file a lawsuit against the principal at the school where the abuse occurred. The plaintiffs claimed that the principal ignored repeated complaints about the abuser, and failed to take appropriate action.

The defendant recently filed a motion for summary judgment in the case, arguing that plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations because the law was meant to apply only to claims against the actual perpetrator. But the Court disagreed, denying the motion—a decision that is likely to open the door for more similar lawsuits in the future.

Two Victims Abused by Kindergarten Aide

Steffon Rodney Christian worked at Baldwin Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia for over a decade. He was hired in 1981 as an aide in the kindergarten class, and then later transitioned to a library assistant. He continued to work at the school through 1999.

The plaintiffs state that Christian sexually abused them while they attended the school in the mid-1990s. Yet despite repeated complaints to the school’s principal, nothing was done. The principal rejected the accusations and allowed Christian to continue working there.

Years later, a former victim informed the police of his own experience of abuse at Christian’s hands. The police began an investigation, and in November 2011, arrested and charged the former school employee with sexually assaulting a child. Christian was 48 years old at the time.

The police stated even then that they believed there could be other victims. Christian was held without bond at the Prince William County Adult Detention Center. In March 2012, a Prince William County grand jury handed down a 63-count indictment against Christian. He was also charged with four counts of forcible sodomy against a juvenile.

Christian later plead guilty to 22 accounts of sexual abuse involving eight young victims. Under a plea bargain, 45 of the 67 charges were dropped. Christian was later sentenced to 108 years in prison.

Judge Denies Motion for Summary Judgment

After Christian’s arrest, the two plaintiffs, in this case, filed civil actions against the woman who was principal at the Baldwin Elementary School at the time, alleging gross negligence in violation of Virginia law.

They noted that multiple parents expressed concerns about Christian to this principle before or during Christian’s abuse of the plaintiffs, but the defendant took no action in response to these concerns.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing:

  • The plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations because the expanded statute applies only to intentional tort claims against the perpetrator of sexual abuse.
  • The evidence developed during discovery failed to demonstrate gross negligence and causation as a matter of law.

The Court disagreed, denying the motion on both counts. The Court explained that first, courts are required to apply the plain meaning of statutes and that the law “strongly suggests” that it can be applied to a “wide range of claims against a wide range of defendants.”

On the second argument, the Court  stated contrary to the defendant’s argument, “several genuine issues of material fact are evident from the parties’ submissions.” The Court  added that with questions of negligence, whether an act was a proximate cause of an event is best determined by the jury.”

The parties had a settlement negotiation scheduled for December 10, 2019, three days before the hearing on the defendant’s motion. Should the parties not reach a settlement agreement, the motion will be denied.

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