J.P. v. Smith, et al. (March 2016) – Sex Abuse Claims Against a NJ School
Earlier this year, the New Jersey Superior Court ruled against a student who alleged extensive sexual abuse by one of her teachers, an assistant band director. See J.P. v. Smith, et al. (March 7, 2016).
In the case, a former student brought a civil sex abuse lawsuit against multiple parties including her teacher, the high school, Ocean County, the City of Manahawkin, the Township of Stafford and the State of New Jersey. The student alleged that the abuse had occurred roughly 14 years earlier, when she was 17 years old.
More: School Sex Abuse Claims in New Jersey (Part 1) – NJ’s Child Sex Abuse Act & the Statute of Limitations
New Jersey Child Sexual Abuse Act – Application to Schools
The plaintiff argued that the school was liable under New Jersey’s Child Sexual Abuse Act (Act) which clearly allows for liability of passive abusers, or those who knowingly allow abuse to occur. The key is whether the school stands in loco parentis (in place of the parent) to the student. Plaintiff argued that the school was liable because some of the abuse occurred on school-sanctioned overnight visits, one to Ohio and another to Canada. Therefore, the school stood in loco parentis on these trips because it provided food, shelter, etc. The trial judge disagreed and dismissed her claims under the Act.
On appeal, the New Jersey Superior Court upheld the trial judge’s ruling based on three similar cases, Hardwicke v. American Boychoir School (2006), D.M. v. River Dell Regional High School (2004), and Bryson v. Diocese of Camden (2012). In the latter two cases, the courts ruled that the Act did not apply (to a public high school and a private Catholic school). Essentially, the court in J.P. v. Smith held that schools can be held liable under the New Jersey Child Sexual Abuse Act if there is evidence of residential custody that is more than just fleeting or temporary in nature.
Tort Claims – Negligence
The plaintiff also brought several claims against the school under common law, i.e., tort or negligence claims. The court’s analysis of these claims is particularly instructive. There were two main issues with the negligence claims against the school: the statute of limitations and the tort notice required under the Tort Claims Act (TCA).
Statute of Limitations
In general, negligence claims must usually be brought within the usual two year statute of limitations, or two years from the date of the injury. Hence, the school argued that the clock started ticking in 2000, when she initially reported the abuse to her parents and the school.
Plaintiff argued that the discovery rule applied. Per the discovery rule under New Jersey law, the statute of limitations is tolled until the injured party can reasonably discover the injury and its cause. Plaintiff argued that the clock started ticking on September 11, 2014, the date a psychotherapist submitted a report detailing plaintiff’s awareness of the abuse.
The court found that the clock started ticking for plaintiff’s claims in July 2013, when she discovered the abuse and its causal relationship to her emotional state.
Tort Claims Act – Tort Notice Requirement
Ultimately, plaintiff lost due to the tort notice requirement under the Tort Claims Act. Plaintiffs in New Jersey who intend to bring any injury claims against a government agency or entity must do so within 90 days. In the J.P. v. Smith case, the court found that plaintiff failed to comply with the 90 day filing requirement, and therefore, her claims were denied.
New Jersey Crime Victims Rights Lawyers
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