As NY Child Abuse Suits Surge, Attys Prepare For Long Haul

By Frank G. Runyeon | August 18, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Jeff Herman and Krisel McSweeney of Herman Law announce new Child Victims Act lawsuits Wednesday on the steps of the Manhattan New York state courthouse. (Frank G. Runyeon | Law360)


Hundreds of child abuse lawsuits poured into New York state courts last week as the Child Victims Act went into effect, but attorneys said they were also pacing themselves for a longer rollout as a one-year door opened for older people to file suits against their childhood abusers.

The new law — which dramatically extends the time victims of child sexual abuse have to file suit from shortly after they entered adulthood to 55 years old — went into effect on Wednesday, starting the clock on a one-year look-back period during which people of any age can file suit, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

By 5 p.m. that day, 427 Child Victims Act lawsuits were electronically filed statewide, with 169 filed in New York City alone, according to the New York State Unified Court System.

But those lawsuits were only the opening salvo in a larger legal battle, according to several law firms filing such suits.

“Literally, we have hundreds of cases. We are hearing from hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse. It’s just incredible to hear the voices of people,” said Jeff Herman of Herman Law, speaking from the state courthouse steps in Manhattan on Wednesday. His firm ultimately filed 16 lawsuits that day, he said, and they planned to continue to slowly roll the suits out throughout the year, he said.

“We are trying to empower our victims and make them feel as though their voice is heard, instead of muffling their voices in a stack of hundreds of lawsuits,” Herman told Law360.

Other firms took a different tack.

Robins Kaplan LLP and Jeff Anderson & Associates PA announced they had filed over 100 lawsuits in New York City and 262 lawsuits statewide on the first day. Attorneys at those firms worked through the night to electronically file the lawsuits after midnight, with a second shift taking over to finish out the day’s work.

By 10 a.m. Wednesday, the two firms had filed the vast majority of cases filed on the New York County dockets, according to a review by Law360.

The firms are partnering on their Child Victims Act lawsuits, a strategy adopted by several firms to tackle the large caseload, and have put around 20 attorneys on the Child Victims Act lawsuits, many of them full time, said Mike Finnegan of Jeff Anderson & Associates.

But after that all-nighter, the firms intend to dial back their prolific pace.

“I think there will be this big wave, and then it will be continuous throughout,” Finnegan said, noting that he expected “hundreds and hundreds” would ultimately be filed.

“Because of the publicity surrounding the filings today, we anticipate that more survivors will become aware of the window and come forward,” said Tara Sutton of Robins Kaplan LLP, echoing that the firms plan on “continuously filing cases throughout the one-year window.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law in February after more than a decade of opposition by large institutions that care for children, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.

According to a search of New York state court records, many of the electronically filed lawsuits appear to be against the Roman Catholic Church, including at least 87 separate actions filed against the Archdiocese of New York, 44 against the Diocese of Brooklyn, 25 against the Diocese of Rockville Centre, 24 against the Archdiocese of Albany, and 7 against the Diocese of Buffalo by Thursday evening. The Boy Scouts of America was also sued in at least 12 actions statewide.

“While we carefully review the claims made in these suits, we ask that people pray for peace and healing for all those who have suffered from the sin and crime of the sexual abuse of minors, wherever it occurred, particularly victim-survivors and their families,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York.

The Boy Scouts released a general statement: “First and foremost, we care deeply about all victims of abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting. We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children.”

Attorneys noted that they were largely filing their initial cases against known bad actors because of the trail blazed by established evidence and would carefully build cases against any new defendants.

Many firms touted their comparatively modest filing tally as a virtue and urged caution in proceeding with the abuse litigation.

“We’re responsible lawyers and we file cases responsibly,” said Stephen Weiss of Seeger Weiss LLP, which filed 15 lawsuits on Wednesday, answering questions on a conference call. “No case can be filed responsibly before we do a thorough investigation of the alleged claims, validate them — hopefully through corroborating evidence — and we’ve done that in each of the cases that we intend to file today.”

The court system also made preparations to handle the influx.

The New York State court administrator announced it had designated 45 judges statewide, including 12 to handle cases in New York City.

In Gotham’s five boroughs, Justice George Silver will handle all pretrial proceedings. Hon. Vito Caruso will oversee cases outside New York City, which will be assigned to four regionally designated judges: Justice Michael Mackey, Justice Michael V. Coccoma, Justice Deborah Chimes and Justice Terry Jane Ruderman.

The court noted it had trained judges on the new law, arranged for a parallel alternative dispute resolution track during the pretrial stage, and created new rules aiming to complete discovery on each lawsuit within a year of filing, kicking off any trial soon after that. A case management order has also been issued, similar to asbestos-related suits, for all lawsuits revived by the new law that were previously dismissed on the basis of an expired statute of limitations.

“The revived Child Victims Act cases are critically important cases, raising numerous challenging legal issues, that must be adjudicated as consistently and expeditiously as possible across the state,” Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are fully committed to providing appropriate and sufficient resources to achieve that goal.”

Several attorneys voiced approval for the court’s preparations.

“I was very impressed with what they’ve done so far, as a systematic approach to it,” Finnegan said. Some other states that have had look-back windows have waited to come up with a strategy to tackle them until have the cases were filed, adding that the New York state courts “getting in front of it is a good thing.”

“I think that’s a good sign for the survivors here that these courts are going to take it seriously,” Finnegan said.

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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.