On August 3, 2016, nearly forty years after its first incident of sexual abuse, St. George, a Rhode Island boarding school, settled suit with 30 former students, whose accounts of sexual abuse were either ignored or outright disbelieved by the school. Unfortunately, horrific stories like these are all too common throughout the country, even in Massachusetts and other preparatory schools in New England. While it is impossible to fully compensate minor victims of sexual abuse, survivors may still recover damages from schools that failed to protect children from sexual offenses carried out by staff members at these institutions.
St. George is an elite private boarding school in Rhode Island, which opened its doors to girls around the 1970s. During that time, the school hired a field hockey coach who later became responsible for carrying out terrible abuses on teenage girls. One of the first victims, Anne Scott, sued the school about a decade after the incident. However, she dropped her suit when the school’s attorney argued that Ms. Scott was lying or that she had consensual sex with the then 67-year-old Al Gibbs, the school’s athletic trainer. Years later, more survivors reported abuses at the prep school from Gibbs and other faculty members. The school acknowledged that it mistreated the reports and failed to report the incidents to the appropriate authorities, which was required by law.
Parents of minors that were injured due to sexual abuse or even adults who were sexually abused as minors are able to bring personal injury claims against the schools for negligence and vicarious liability. However, one of the issues that come up in tort claims against schools and individuals responsible for sexually abusing minors is whether the case is filed in time. Many times, children who are sexually abused do not notify parents and do not recognize the specific injuries that were caused by the sexual abuse until later. While tort actions in Massachusetts need to be filed within 3 years of an incident, Massachusetts laws have liberalized this requirement in sexual abuse cases. In Massachusetts, an individual can bring a personal injury claim against defendants for sexually abusing them as minors if the case is brought within 35 years of the sexual abuse or 7 years after the victim discovered or reasonably discovered a psychological or emotional injury, whichever comes later. In addition, the time is tolled until the child turns eighteen. This has allowed victims to bring personal injury claims against individuals who have committed sexual abuse and also against third parties, like churches, schools, colleges and universities that have actively ignored or covered up complaints of sexual abuse.
St. George has settled the case with the 30 victims in Rhode Island, but it has also acknowledged its involvement in covering up reported sexual abuse. For many victims, filing suit against the institutions is a way to hold these establishments accountable for failing to protect minors from abusive staff and also to help develop a mechanism which would prevent or immediately address any claims of sexual abuse and misconduct.