Court: Claim Against Oregon City Valid Even Years After Claim Occurred

March 18, 2008

The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that a claim of sex abuse against a government employee may depend on when the plaintiff discovers the city played a role in the abuse, not necessarily when the abuse occurred.

In The Boy Scouts of America, Cascade Pacific Council, Boy Scouts of America and James Donald Tannehill v. City of Dalles, the plaintiff who was sexually abused when he was 16 years old brought a claim against the city of Dalles, Ore., asserting that the city’s indifference to be free from sexual abuse by a governmental actor, as promised under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, caused him to be abused by a city police officer. The plaintiff did not file a claim against the city for its role in the abuse until 1996, although the abuse occurred in 1983. As such, the court was asked to evaluate whether the claim was filed in a timely manner.

According to court documents, the city police department operated a Boy Scout Explorer Scout program designed to educate teens about law enforcement and police operations. The Boy Scouts of America and the Cascade Pacific Council, which designed and operated the program, “devised and disseminated policies and procedures to protect participants in their programs from exploitation and sexual abuse, including training adults and youths in recognizing, resisting and reporting sexual abuse,” court documents state.

“The Boy Scouts advised the city of its policies and procedures and their importance in preventing child sexual abuse, but the city did not implement or follow them,” court documents note. For instance, the Boy Scouts required any Explorer program that sent participants to a regional or national conference conduct extensive youth protection training. The city of Dalles sent participants to such a conference, but did not conduct youth protection training. Furthermore, the city did not caution its officers or Explorers against the dangers of sexual abuse or teach them how to recognize or report sexual abuse. Without training him for the position, the city delegated authority to an officer to run the Explorer program who sexually abused the plaintiff.

“Although the city created an oversight committee “on paper,” in reality, as a city officer admitted, it did not exist,” court document state.

Moreover, when city officials learned that its officers were engaging in misconduct, such as regularly spending time alone with Explorers and serving them alcohol, the plaintiff said the city tolerated and did not discourage the officers’ violations.

The plaintiff acknowledged he was 16 years old when the abuse occurred and did not disclose the abuse until 2001, after learning from a newspaper article that another police officer was under investigation for serving alcohol to a minor. He claimed it was only then in 2001 that he discovered he might have a claim against the city.

The city, however, argued that the two-year general personal injury limitations period found in Oregon Statute12.110(1) meant that because the plaintiff did not take action against the city within the requisite time after the abuse, the claim was barred. The plaintiff contended that he reasonably had not discovered the facts that gave rise to his claim against the city at the time the abuse occurred, and thus asked a jury to determine the date on which his claim against the city incurred.

The trial court agreed with the plaintiff, and required the city to prove that before July 7, 2001, the “plaintiff either knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known facts which would make a reasonable person aware of the substantial possibility that the City of the Dalles caused the plaintiff some harm.”

The jury returned a verdict against the city and made a special finding that “plaintiff discover[ed] that he had a claim against the City of the Dalles” in October of 2001.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision when it agreed with the city. The appeals court reasoned that because the plaintiff acknowledged he did not bring his action within the two years after the abuse, the trial court erred in its decision.

The parties took the case to the state Supreme Court, which reversed the Court of Appeals decision and sent the case back to that court for further proceedings.

“We have held that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a reasonably prudent plaintiff perceives both the injury and the role that the defendant has played in that injury … Because there were facts from which a reasonable jury could have found, as the jury did in this case, that plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim against the city did not accrue at the time [the officer] committed the acts of sexual abuse, the trial court did not err in denying defendant’s motion for a directed verdict on statute of limitations grounds.” the high court said.

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Source: Oregon Judicial Department

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