CA 'Look-Back' Window Closing For Adult Victims Of Childhood Sex Abuse
The legal window for adults to sue their childhood sexual abuser despite the statute of limitations will soon close in California.
CALIFORNIA —Southern California resident Patricia Egan, 65, is breathing easier, she said, after having her day in court. In November, Egan, now 65, won an $18 million lawsuit against her former brother-in-law, the man she says sexually abused her during the '60s and '70s, starting when she was 11 years old.
Now, however, the three-year legal window that enables older adult victims such as Egan to sue for damages against their childhood sexual abusers is about to close in California. California Assembly Bill 218, temporarily set aside the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse victims to file claims. It opened up a three-year window for victims abused in the 70s, 60s and earlier to sue and triggered a flood of high-profile lawsuits.
Many recent civil cases against large organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Catholic Church, SeaCoast Grace megachurch in Cypress and prominent celebrities such as boxer George Foreman were filed during this period of time known as the 'look-back' window. Victims were able to seek recompense in cases dating back decades.
On Oct. 13, 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 218 into law. Authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, the new law allowed victims of childhood sexual assault to file civil claims for damages within 22 years of reaching adulthood or within 3 years of discovering that childhood abuse caused psychological trauma into adulthood. It was a broad expansion of the statute of limitations for victims to sue. For victims older than 40, the law created a three-year 'look-back window,' giving them until the coming New Year's Eve to sue regardless of when the alleged crime happened.
"AB-218 has been a blessing to many many survivors of childhood sexual abuse," attorney Samuel Dourdulian, owner of the DL Law Group, told Patch via email. "It has given them an opportunity for justice they otherwise would never have had."
A former Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles County, Dordulian's DL Law Group has processed close to 100 cases during the three-year look-back window, advocating for sexual abuse victims, he said.
"Just this week we've had several new callers with claims of childhood sexual abuse," he said. "I don't believe there should be any statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse survivors. If there needs to be one, it should match the science and studies that teach us the statute of limitations needs to be after the child turns 51, to cover most survivors."
Those stories may remain silent unless something changes, he contends. Some cases such as Egan's resulted from alleged abuse by a family member. As she discovered, finding a lawyer willing to take on a decades-old case was a hurdle she almost didn't overcome. Her path to justice was costly, though worth it, Egan said.
Winning A Civil Suit Against Her Alleged Childhood Sexual Abuser
In November, Egan was awarded more than $18 million in damages in her case. She doesn’t know if she’ll see a penny of the award, but through the legal process, she said she’s gained something even more valuable: her voice.
After the jury-less trial that ended Nov. 10, New York Supreme Court Justice L. Michael Mackey ordered Stewart Gordon to pay $18,810,296 in damages to Egan, more than two years after her suit was opened, according to court records.
In his decision, Mackey said Gordon “essentially ripped Egan’s life apart and deprived her of the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career, become the wife and mother she wanted to be and to become the person she wanted to be,” court records show.
In a letter to the court, Gordon claimed there was no money to send to Egan. "There is really just about nothing that creditors can have access to,” Gordon wrote. “In a word, my planner stated that I am uncollectable.”
Whether or not she receives compensation from Gordon was never the point, Egan told Patch.
She is one of the thousands of victims of childhood sexual abuse who lobbied for the passage of the Child Victims Act and the associated look-back window that allowed survivors to sue perpetrators, regardless of whether the statute of limitation passed.
Egan’s case, filed in New York, was one of almost 10,000 civil lawsuits filed during the window that opened in 2019. New York was among 24 states that instituted such look-back windows, including California, where Egan now resides.
On the last day of the New York look-back window, Manhattan Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, a champion of the act, stated that “the amount of people who filed cases shows how pervasive the problem of child sex abuse has been.”
Egan first found the courage to confront her past after a conversation with her husband when he asked why she never swam with him in their new backyard pool, she told Patch.
“(My husband) would get in the pool and I’d get out,” she said. “It never really registered why.”
However, a five-page sworn statement explained her memories of sexual abuse suffered, including a strong memory of Gordon in their pool.
Egan was 14 when she dipped into her sister’s above-ground pool in her first bikini. “When I was swimming alone on multiple occasions, he would change into his bathing suit and join me,” she wrote.
His molestation turned her love of swimming, which “should have been fun, into horrible reoccurring abuse,” Egan said.
Though the abuse in the swimming pool occurred decades before, the memories of abuse were so fresh they affected her current life and her marriage, she said. That moment of clarity began her journey toward seeking both healing and justice for the childhood that was stolen from her, according to Egan.
In an email written by Gordon in 2002, submitted to the court as evidence, he allegedly admitted to sexually abusing Egan and offered to pay for her therapy and any “expenditures due to what I have done to you.” He offered to send a monthly check in the amount of $325, she said. The checks from Gordon never came and therapy bills mounted, she said.
Egan said when she decided to take action, she faced challenges.
While lawyers gave much attention to high-profile cases against the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church, according to Egan, she found it difficult to find legal representation for a family case.
Though New York's look-back window closed in August 2021, Egan’s case, like many, was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One attorney was over his head and my case went nowhere,” she said. “He returned my retainer.”
Then Egan met lawyer Peter J. Scagnelli of Albany, NY, who “hit the ground running,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to find Peter and have this case move forward.”
During the courtroom proceedings, Egan’s psychologist, Dr. Jean Ghanem-Ybarra testified that she still suffers from both chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. Ghanem-Ybarra, explained to the court how “many simple things, such as shopping or going out to a restaurant or movie, are extremely difficult for her, and physical intimacy causes terrifying flashbacks of her abuse,” court documents show.
She is still working through the long-term effects of the abuse, she says.
“Thanks to the passage of the Child Victims Act, today I can ask this court to give my abuse a voice,” she said in her victim’s impact statement in court. “I ask that you help me gain back a feeling of worth, power, and a sense of justice.”
Egan hopes that new laws will be written to eradicate statutes of limitation with regard to sex crimes against children, especially as the California Childhood Sexual Assault look-back window is about to close at the end of 2022.
“We should all have the opportunity to be heard when we are ready. Some victims may never be ready or even able to take a stand for themselves,” she said. “For those who can, they should be allowed to do so without time constraints.”
For Egan, the ruling was not about money. Still, Egan and her attorney said they are not ceasing their quest for restitution.
“Anything — even to have him write my name down on a $5 check every day of his life would be vindication,” she said.
“I feel more relieved than I ever have in my entire life,” she added. “He’s been found liable, and I have been heard. But I’m not done fighting yet.
Countdown To Look-Back Window's Closure
As for Californians who are seeking justice, lawyers are available to file claims for child sexual assault victims of any age until Dec. 31, 2022. After that, things will change a bit, according to Dordulian. Starting Jan. 1, 2023, the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse means that most will be able to sue until they are 40.
"That is a huge improvement over what we had before, which gave survivors of childhood sexual abuse only till the age of 26 to file," he said.
Still, even that is restrictive since a lot of survivors won't be ready to tell their stories until they are in their 40s or 50s.
"I think we need to take a page from the new federal law that passed that eliminated the statute of limitations altogether for childhood sexual abuse in civil cases," Dordulian said. "I hope California would pass similar legislation and let those survivors that have the evidence of abuse to file their claims when they are ready, irrespective of time."