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Florida Supreme Court rules that minor-aged victim of sexual abuse is not entitled to accrue negligence and respondeat superior claims against employer of abuser until a proper representative knew or reasonably should have known of the facts that supported the cause of action

On October 1, 2020, in RR, et al., New Life Community Church of CMA, Inc., et al, No. SC18-962, a case in which the plaintiffs alleged that they were sexually abused as children by an individual employed by the defendant church, the Florida Supreme Court resolved a conflict among Florida appellate courts over whether courts can go beyond the statutory framework and adopt a special, judge-made rule to govern the general accrual of tort claims for statute of limitations purposes  where the would-be plaintiff is a minor. The Court first noted that although statutory provisions exist mandating a delayed discovery accrual rule for certain types of torts, namely fraud, products liability, professional and medical malpractice, and intentional torts based on abuse, there is no general statutory provision that delays the accrual of claims in all tort cases where the potential plaintiff is a minor. Consequently, while the delayed discovery accrual rule under Section 95.11(7), Florida Statutes, applicable to intentional torts based on abuse, could apply to a claim directly against the alleged abuser, the Court ruled that the statute does not apply to negligence-based and respondeat superior claims against an alleged abuser’s employer. The Court pointed out that there is a tolling statute enacted in 1990 to deal with tort claims generally, Section 95.051(1)(i), which provides that the running of the time under any statute of limitations is tolled by:…[t]he minority or previously adjudicated incapacity of the person entitled to sue during any period of time in  which a parent, guardian, or guardian ad litem does not exist, has an interest adverse to the minor or incapacitated person, or is adjudicated to be incapacitated to sue; except with respect to the statute of limitations for a claim for medical malpractice as provided in s. 95.11. In any event, the action must be begun within 7 years after the act, event, or occurrence giving rise to the cause of action.  The Court observed that the Third and Fourth DCAs, confronted with the lack of protection for sexual abuse victims, had fashioned an additional judicial remedy for minors who did not qualify for relief under Section 95.051(1)(i) by holding that accrual occurred until the minor reached the age of majority or until a proper representative knew or reasonably should have known of the facts that supported the cause of action.  See Drake v. Island Cmty. Church, 462 So. 2d 1142 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985); Doe v. NurUl-Islam Acad., 217 So. 3d 85 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017). The Court disapproved of the Third and Fourth DCA holdings, based both on general rules of statutory construction and on the fact that the Florida Legislature specifically expressed its intent regarding how to deal with this this type of case by enacting Section 95.051(1)(i).  On the same basis, the Court criticized its own previous decision in Hearndon v. Graham, 767 So. 2d 1179 (Fla. 2000), in which the Court held that “the delayed discovery doctrine applies to the accrual of the instant cause of action [an alleged intentional tort] based on a claim of childhood sexual abuse accompanied by traumatic amnesia.” The Court distinguished Hearndon on the basis that, unlike Herndon, this case does not involve a direct action against the alleged abuser or a claim of traumatic amnesia.

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