Marissa Hoechstetter, center, speaking at a 2020 rally in Manhattan...

Marissa Hoechstetter, center, speaking at a 2020 rally in Manhattan in support of the New York Adult Survivors Act, was assaulted by her gynecologist in Brooklyn almost a decade ago. Credit: Getty Images/Scott Heins

ALBANY — Adult victims of sexual abuse can now start filing lawsuits against individuals, companies and organizations for alleged assaults dating back years that had been barred by statutes of limitations.

New York’s Adult Survivors Act creates a one-year window to bring civil cases alleging abuse and rape committed in New York State against people 18 years old or older. The window opened Thursday and suspends the statute of limitations on most sexual assaults until Nov. 24, 2023.

Marissa Hoechstetter has been fighting for this moment since she was assaulted by her gynecologist in Brooklyn almost a decade ago. The doctor lost his license, but served no jail time or probation under a plea deal, even though the investigation found that she was just one of many victims of the same doctor.

“It’s hard when you feel like you are saying this horrible big thing and nobody is listening,” she told Newsday. “It’s painful. It’s really hard to talk about this stuff publicly, but I am committed to doing it because I have seen other people be able to come together and heal. It gives us the chance to make our case. I really do feel now our real work begins, and that’s letting people know about the opportunity.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • New York’s Adult Survivors Act creates a one-year window to bring civil cases alleging abuse and rape committed against people 18 years old or older.
  • The window opened Thursday and stays open until Nov. 24, 2023.
  • The act follows the 2019 Child Victims Act which prompted nearly 11,000 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse against children during a two-year window.

Personal stories such as Hoechstetter’s fueled the efforts by advocates in and out of Albany to pass the law, which once had been stalled in the State Legislature.

“It’s a reckoning for any survivors who have been suffering in silence because up to now they have not had the chance to tell their story,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), a co-sponsor of the law, which passed this year.

“It’s also going to be a reckoning for institutions and some individuals who may have participated in these crimes because they will be identified and hopefully removed from positions of authority,” Hoylman said in an interview with Newsday.

Here are some other details:

  • Lawyers are heavily advertising their services. Survivors in most cases will have to pay their attorneys whether they win or lose. Guidance in contemplating and starting a case can be provided by the Crime Victim Bar Association (https://victimbar.org/finding-an-attorney/), which has a database of lawyers schooled in this area. 
  • The nonprofit group Safe Horizon (https://www.safehorizon.org/programs/adult-survivors-act-qa/) based in New York City notes that “bringing a lawsuit is hard, even if the end result is satisfying.” The group, which helps survivors and advocates for sexual abuse victims, cautions that not every sexual offense qualifies for action under the act, and not all lawyers are skilled in the area of sexual assault. It also says a victim may be sued in a counterclaim that, if successful, could result in a court-ordered payment by the person who brought the initial lawsuit.
  • Opponents of the measure had argued that the cases would be difficult to adjudicate because evidence could be lost and witnesses could be dead or have faded memories.
  • Alleged abusers who have died can’t be sued, but the company or institution they worked for could be.

At least 750 former inmates and prisoners already have announced their plans to sue under the Adult Survivors Act, said Hoylman, and the law’s co-sponsor, Assemb. Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan). A week ago, they and survivors and their advocates unveiled a digital billboard in Times Square to help alert victims of their rights under the act.

“The doors to justice will be flung wide open and countless survivors will have an opportunity to seize justice by filing a case against their abusers, and the institutions that harbored them, in the civil court,” Rosenthal said. “The simple act of publicly identifying one's abuser is empowering and has the potential to bring a measure of healing. The ASA will also ensure that predators who have hidden behind New York's weak laws and short statutes of limitations will finally face justice.”

The Adult Survivors Act follows the 2019 Child Victims Act. That law prompted nearly 11,000 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse against children during the two-year window in which the statute of limitations was suspended.

The number of cases under the Adult Survivors Act is expected to surpass that because the ASA cases can include adult employees accusing employers, according to the Lippes Mathias Attorneys at Law firm based in Buffalo.

“It took a very long time to get the Adult Victims Act passed,” Hoechstetter said. “It’s been incredibly difficult and painful, but also rewarding in that you know you’re not alone and you can engage in this horrible thing in a much different way.”

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