ALBANY — New York courts, law firms, Catholic dioceses, Boy Scout troops and schools are bracing for an onslaught of civil lawsuits to be filed by people seeking justice for long-ago sexual abuse when a special one-year “look back” period begins Wednesday.
Thousands of cases are expected to be filed on that first day alone. At least two law firms are handling upward of 400 claims each, court officials said.
Forty-five judges have been designated around the state to hear the claims, including five on Long Island. All the judges went through special training this summer. Expedited timelines for proceedings have been established and all cases will be offered mediation services as a way to settle claims more quickly.
“It is really unprecedented, what is happening in New York,” said Jason Amala, an attorney whose firm anticipates filing more than 100 claims on Wednesday.
“We do not know how many lawsuits we will face during this window period, and if we will have to declare bankruptcy as a result,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn diocese wrote to parishioners earlier this month. “What we do know is that litigation can be a lengthy endeavor.”
The expected torrent of cases was triggered by the Child Victims Act, a sweeping piece of legislation enacted by New York lawmakers this year. The most prominent and controversial feature of the new law is a one-year “look back” period that essentially suspends statute of limitations conditions for filing molestation claims. Those who allege they were victims of abuse have one year to file a civil lawsuit no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occured.
The legislation had been debated in Albany for a decade, but always had been blocked by a Republican-led State Senate. After Democrats won control of the chamber in the 2018 elections, they made the Child Victims Act a top priority, approving it in January. The Democratic-led Assembly also approved it, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo later signed it into law.
That so many lawsuits are expected results from a combination of factors, attorneys and state officials said. Momentum for the new law had been building for years. Cultural attitudes toward sexual abuse have shifted in part because of high-profile cases. Law firms have been aggressively advertising for clients on radio, television and the internet. And the “look back” window is a relatively small time period.
“It was a long time coming,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), Senate sponsor of the legislation. “On a political scale, the Child Victims Act represents speaking truth to power. This was a cause that hundreds, if not thousands, lent their efforts … Finally, we’re going to start the clock.”
Hoylman also said the lawsuits are “not about money.”
“This is about the opportunity for a lot of adult survivors of sex abuse to reclaim their lives,” the senator said. “For a New York court to hear their story is going to be an enormously important step for many survivors.”
He is among the advocates scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday at Times Square in Manhattan to mark the opening of the look back period.
“New York was, for so very long, a shutdown state in that there was no way to bring these cases,” said Amala, whose firm, Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, is based in Seattle and has worked on similar claims in Washington state. Because of its experience, Pfau is working with a New York-based firm to represent clients.
Amala said there has been a “steady stream of people coming forward once it became clear (the law) was going to pass and the governor was going to sign it.” He said New York court administrators have been “thoughtful in trying to prepare for what’s coming,” but there’s no way of predicting the number of lawsuits eventually filed.
“On some level, they’ve done as much as they can,” he said.
The 45 current or acting state Supreme Court justices designated to hear the cases include two for Nassau County, three for Suffolk County and 12 for the five boroughs of New York City, according to Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration.
Cases will be on an expedited timetable and will be guided through the system’s “alternative dispute resolution” process to see if they can be resolved through mediation rather than a trial.
Law firms have been advertising to encourage alleged victims to come forward with claims. Among the issues they point out: People aren’t prohibited by age from filing a claim during the one-year window. After that period closes, new statute of limitations rules apply, including a ban on anyone 55 or older bringing a lawsuit.
Hoylman said other states didn’t see a raft of frivolous lawsuits after easing the limitations on such lawsuits and the likelihood in New York is low as well.
“These cases will be handled in a court system where rules of evidence apply,” he said.
Catholic dioceses especially have been under the spotlight because of sex-abuse scandals involving priests over the last two decades.
In recent weeks, bishops around the state have written columns and messages advising church members of the possible impact while saying they will be focused on the “healing of survivors” and noting that other institutions will face claims too.
“Every diocese is certain to face financial challenges, but it is impossible to really know what to expect in that regard until the window opens. In the coming weeks and months, we will have a better sense just how many survivors will exercise their right to litigate, and what the dioceses’ financial exposure will look like,” Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, the church’s lobbying arm, said in an email.
“This will be a difficult time, not only for the Church and other institutions that deal with children, but especially for the survivors themselves,” Poust added. “It is important for all of us to be mindful of the traumatic, sometimes long-buried, memories that will be revived for many wounded people, regardless of who their abuser was or whether or not they bring lawsuits.”