Law firms in New York state have already started working on several cases soon to be brought by victims of child sexual abuse after a bill was signed into law earlier this month that extended the period of time during which those claims can be filed.
Several of those firms have also put money into the new law, called the Child Victims Act, by paying to advertise their services when users search for it on the internet. So far, many have received a return on that investment.
One such firm is the Marsh Law Firm, which sponsored an ad to appear near the top of search results querying the law following its enactment. Jennifer Freeman, a partner at the firm in White Plains, said interest from victims of child sexual abuse seeking legal help has been strong.
“Since the statute passed, we’ve probably gotten about 15 calls an hour, which is a lot,” Freeman said. “We had been getting calls for months, so over the last eight or nine months, we’ve probably gotten about 1,500 calls.”
Freeman said there’s been an uptick in the number of calls from victims since the bill became law on Feb. 14, but that inquiries about litigation had already started to increase since publicity surrounding the CVA began to ramp up last year.
Republicans, who controlled the State Senate until it flipped in the November 2018 election, blocked the bill from coming to the floor for a vote at the time. Democrats approved it within the first month of this year’s legislative session after gaining a firm majority in the chamber in last year’s elections.
Since then, advertising and media reports on the legislation have helped inform victims that they may have a new opportunity to sue their alleged abuser, Freeman said.
“There’s a lot more attention and there’s advertising and law firms are reaching out to make sure people know this exists,” Freeman said. “Before the statute passed, you really had no recourse.”
The law increased the statutes of limitations for both criminal and civil cases of child sexual abuse. The new statute allows civil claims in those cases until the victim is 55 years old. Criminal charges are now allowed until a victim is 28 years old in felony cases and 25 years old for misdemeanors.
It will also create a one-year revival period during which victims age 55 and above can bring civil claims against their alleged abusers. That window is scheduled to begin in August, which was intentional to give victims time to prepare their case before the filing period opens.
Some firms, including Freeman’s, have started to reach out to individuals who called them in previous years about their alleged child sex abuse but were outside the statute of limitations at the time.
Others have been getting calls back from victims who they had to tell in years past that their suit wouldn’t hold up in court due to the previous law. That’s been the case with Manhattan firm Cuti Hecker Wang, which also sponsored an ad for search results on the legislation for a few days after it became law.
Mariann Meier Wang, a name partner with the firm, said she’s spoken to a few individuals who had called years earlier to inquire about their case, only to be met with a legal roadblock.
“There have been a number of calls and it’s all incredibly heartbreaking stuff,” Wang said. “It’s very hard to hear, but the reality is there are a lot of people who have been living with this a very long time and who feel there’s hope now that they can actually try to do something about what they’ve been suffering for so many years.”
Those experiences can be more complicated to litigate if the claims involved go back several decades, multiple attorneys said. But often, because of the extreme nature of the victim’s experience, they may also start with a good foundation to work from, according to Wang.
“The client has suffered so much. When the abuse occurs when you’re a child, it really essentially becomes a core trauma that becomes a part of you for the rest of your life,” Wang said. “One thing that’s surprising is because it was such a significant event for some people, they’ll hold on to special things like diaries, or photographs to show they were actually in the presence of these people.”
Marty Lynn, a trial attorney with the Lynn Law Firm in Syracuse, said several victims of child sex abuse have already called and visited the firm in hopes of bringing a case. Like other firms, Lynn said his office has been taking calls from victims for years without being able to deliver a result.
“We’ve received these calls probably for years, and as the date of the passage and signing of the law was coming closer, we’ve had a pretty good uptick in calls and people coming in to meet with us to discuss what the law means for them,” Lynn said.
Stephen Coffey, a shareholder at Albany firm O’Connell & Aronowitz, said his firm has had a similar experience since the bill became law. It has already fielded a handful of calls from victims in the Capital Region who want to hire the firm to build their case, Coffey said.
“There have been some people who have called and asked about their rights,” Coffey said. “Most people calling are able to bring an action. What it tells you more than anything is the amount of damage that’s been caused by people.”
Coffey said the firm has heard different stories from a number of victims who have alleged abuse by people within institutions, such as churches, but also by private individuals, such as a friend of their family.
That’s what allegedly happened in the case of Robert Scuderi, who filed one of the first lawsuits using the new statute of limitations against his alleged abuser in federal court last week. Scuderi, who is now in his early 50s, claimed he was abused by his next-door neighbor in Yonkers as a child. He’s represented in the suit by Daniel Isaacs, a solo practitioner from Manhattan.
“My client had waited decades for an opportunity to address the wrongs that were committed against him as an 8-year-old boy,” Isaacs said.
Scuderi isn’t the only one to get a quick start on litigation following the statute’s enactment this month. Kevin Braney, a Colorado resident who spent part of his childhood in Central New York, sued the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse over sexual abuse claims the same day the bill was signed into law.
Attorneys said they’ve already agreed to take on several cases from victims of child sex abuse. There are also victims whose cases will never make it to court, either because of a lack of evidence or other factors outside their control. But Wang said, in many instances, it’s helpful for victims to talk through their options with an attorney, even if a case doesn’t come out of it.
“It has been such an important moment for some of these survivors to speak to a lawyer about it,” Wang said. “So even in the case that we can’t do anything about it, they still say they feel grateful to talk to someone.”