According to the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, more than 2,000 cases of child sexual abuse are reported every year in the Windy City. Notably, those are only the reported cases; meaning the actual incidence of child sexual abuse is even greater. Of course, Chicago isn’t alone. Nationwide, 1 in 7 girls and 1 out of 25 boys are sexually abused before turning the age of 18.
In our experience representing victims of child sexual abuse, we’ve seen that crimes of this kind can cause a lifetime of emotional distress – from feelings of isolation and worthlessness to severe depression and thoughts of suicide. To move on, many children and young adults repress their memories and only recall what happened later on in adulthood.
Statutes of Limitations
For that reason, Illinois recently abolished the statute of limitations in both criminal and civil child sexual assault cases. This means that perpetrators of sexual abuse can be held accountable long after the abuse or assault occurred.
In civil cases, victims of sexual assault may recover money damages for their emotional distress, medical treatment, and other economic or non-economic damages. Oftentimes, the perpetrator does not have sufficient assets to satisfy a judgment. This is where organizational — or corporate — liability becomes important.
There are several theories under which a victim can hold an organization responsible for abuse committed by one of its agents or employees.
- If the organization allows a known abuser to continue working with kids or fails to adequately protect those in its charge, it could be found negligent.
- If an employee abuses while acting within the scope of his or her employment – think daycare worker who molests a child during nap or playtime – the organization may be liable, too.
- An organization would also be on the hook for hiring someone it knew or should have known would pose a danger to children.
Let’s explore all three scenarios.
Known Abusers and Administrative Failures
In a landmark 2010 case, Oregon man Kerry Lewis sued the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) for allowing scout leader Timur Dykes to abuse him nearly 30 years earlier. The jury found the BSA guilty – not just for the abuse but for letting Dykes continue as scout leader after confessing to a BSA official that he’d already molested 17 boys.
A similar administrative failure occurred at the University of Southern California (USC) where complaints regarding gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall had circulated for years. As far back as the ‘90s, school officials were aware that Tyndall had been inappropriately touching students during pelvic exams. He was finally suspended in 2016, but only because a concerned nurse brought the matter to a rape crisis center. The university then investigated, determined that the doctor had indeed been sexually abusing students, and let him quietly resign.
Tyndall’s victims brought suit against the school – not just for the abuse but for how the administration handled the allegations. A settlement was reached for $215 million and a series of reforms to be implemented by the university.
Michigan State University (MSU) reached a larger $500 million settlement with the sexual abuse victims of staff doctor Larry Nassar. As with USC, MSU was sued not just for its employee’s bad acts but for failing to investigate complaints about his conduct, some of which dated back to the late 1990s.
Let the Master Answer
An organization can also be held liable for harm caused by an employee who was acting within the scope of his or her employment. “Scope” might be thought of as the employee’s job description – as in our daycare example – but could be anything the boss asks him or her to do.
This doctrine is known as respondeat superior, which is Latin for “let the master answer.”
In late 2018, a group of sexual abuse survivors filed a class-action lawsuit against the Catholic Church which attempts to hold the religious organization liable under respondeat superior. The Church has always escaped liability by claiming it has no authority over individual priests. This suit ignores individual abuses and focuses instead on steps the Church has taken to mask the actions of its clergy – including a 1962 memo that instructed priests to refrain from reporting abuse to local authorities.
Commenting on her own investigation into clergy sexual abuse, former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan explained, “The failure to investigate also means that the Catholic Church has never made an effort to determine whether the conduct of the accused priests was ignored or covered up by superiors.”
Our final theory of organizational liability concerns something that occurs before work begins. Even if abuse falls outside the scope of a perpetrator’s employment, the organization is liable for the crime if it knew or should have known that the employee would pose a danger to children – or any third party.
Though it’s not as simple as that. In Van Horne v. Muller, a 1998 Illinois case, the court noted that for negligent hiring, “liability arises… when a particular unfitness of an employee gives rise to a particular danger of harm to third parties.” In other words, it’s not enough to show that the organization knew or should have known that a prospective employee was a bad or reckless person. A suit must prove that the organization should have known that he or she would be likely to commit the crime in question.
A good example would be the Boy Scouts case, in which the BSA knew that Dykes was an abuser before placing him in charge of the troop to which Lewis, the plaintiff, belonged.
If you or a loved one have been sexually abused and wish to hold the perpetrator’s employer responsible, don’t go it alone. Seek the help of a qualified personal injury attorney.
As we’ve seen, proving organizational liability for child sexual abuse requires an understanding of the law as well as the long-term emotional effects, which many victims struggle their entire lives.
Our attorneys are experienced in handling child sexual abuse claims and have the expertise and compassion to ensure that you receive the justice you deserve.
For a Free Consultation with one of Passen & Powell’s top-rated personal injury lawyers, call us at 312-527-4500.