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Dissociative Amnesia Regarding Childhood Sexual Abuse Does Not Toll Statute of Limitations for Civil Actions

Robin Altstatt Scarborough, et al. v. Leslie Altstatt
(June 30, 2016) Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

by Matthew J. McCloskey, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/cosa/2016/1248s15.pdf

In a recent opinion, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland rejected the argument that the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims should run from the time that the victim remembers the alleged abuse after experiencing dissociative amnesia.

On December 4, 2014, Plaintiffs, three (3) sisters, filed a complaint against Defendant, their father, setting forth causes of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, and negligence related to alleged sexual abuse committed by Defendant between 1964 and 1984 when Plaintiffs were children. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Plaintiffs opposed Defendant’s motion to dismiss, arguing that they suffered dissociative amnesia regarding the abuse and that their amnesia should toll the statute of limitations until they remembered the abuse in 2014. Specifically, Plaintiffs averred that Robin Scarborough was hospitalized in early 2014 in an inpatients trauma disorders unit, which caused her to remember the abuse that she suffered as a child. When she reported her experience to her sisters, they too remembered the abuse that they suffered, and they filed this lawsuit within one (1) year of their collective realizations. The Circuit Court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument and granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, Judge Berger, writing for the Court of Special Appeals, affirmed. Although Plaintiffs acknowledged that the Court of Appeals had previously rejected the notion that dissociative amnesia tolls the statute of limitation in Doe v. Maskell, 342 Md. 684 (1996), they argued that Doe should be overruled due to intervening changes in scientific understanding of dissociative amnesia. In particular, Plaintiffs argued that: (1) two new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”) had been updated to include a definition “sexual-abuse-related memory alterations”; (2) peer-reviewed scientific studies have recognized the existence of such memory alterations; (3) they would be able to present expert testimony as to their memory alterations; and (4) there was a trend in other jurisdictions towards adopting rules based upon the existence of such memory alterations.

The Court rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments. Although Plaintiffs may have demonstrated that there was a trend in other jurisdictions toward adopting discovery rules that recognize the existence of sex-abuse related memory alterations, the Court held that it was not its prerogative to reject the decisions of the Maryland General Assembly. Notably, after Maskell, the General Assembly “extended the applicable statute of limitations for civil claims arising out of childhood sexual abuse to seven years after the victim reaches the age of majority.” Prior to doing so, however, the General Assembly considered, and rejected, proposals that would have extended the statute of limitations even further. In fact, the General Assembly considered two (2) bills during the 2016 Session “which would have extended the time for filing civil claims arising out of childhood sexual abuse to twenty years after the victim reached the age of majority,” but neither bill obtained a floor vote. Where the General Assembly has “repeated[ly] fail[ed] to pass [particular] legislation, such a failure is very strong evidence that the legislative policy in Maryland is to retain the current law.”

Furthermore, the Court emphasized that it was not the place of the Court of Special Appeals to overrule precedent established by the Court of Appeals, and in so doing, recognized that any law change fell within the purview of the Legislature, not the Judiciary. Said the Court: “It may very well be that the Court of Appeals ultimately determines that it would be appropriate to reconsider its holding in Maskell. Nevertheless, that determination is solely within the province of the Court of Appeals.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court.


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