RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s Supreme Court will accelerate appeals over the constitutionality of a state law that gave adults with child sexual abuse claims another two years to seek civil damages.
A majority of justices agreed this week to hear the case of three former Gaston County student-athletes who are suing the coach who was convicted of crimes against team members as well as the county school board, rather than let the intermediate-level Court of Appeals rule first.
A divided panel of three trial judges dismissed the lawsuit last December, ruling that a portion of the law that revived for two years only — 2020 and 2021 — the ability of someone otherwise too late to sue for child sexual abuse claims — was unconstitutional. Before t he 2019 law called the SAFE Act, such abuse victims effectively had until age 21 to file such a lawsuit. The plaintiffs appealed.
In a 4-3 decision announced Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided the case should bypass the Court of Appeals. The court’s registered Democrats composed the majority. Chief Justice Paul Newby, writing a dissent for the three Republican justices, said they would have allowed Court of Appeals review first and lamented that multiple bypass motions have been allowed by the court over the last few months in other cases.
“There is no jurisprudential reason for allowing this motion or the others,” he wrote in Tuesday’s order, first reported by the Asheville Citizen-Times. No oral argument date was immediately announced.
At the trial court, two of the three judges said the General Assembly was barred from reviving a cause of action after the statute of limitations for such claims expires. The other judge said the two-year window should be upheld, adding that it should be examined as carrying out a compelling government interest to protect children from abuse that may be disclosed many years later.
Lawyers for the state defending the law and the three students — who are now in their 30s and 40s — had urged the justices in an April legal brief to take up the matter immediately, saying the legal questions were of “exceptional public importance.”
Lawsuits similar to the Gaston County case were filed during the previous two years. The state Supreme Court has approached reviving statutes of limitations differently over time, the lawyers wrote.
“Delay and uncertainty about whether lawsuits filed under the revival provision can proceed would perpetuate the very harms that the (SAFE) Act seeks to redress,” according to the brief, signed by state Solicitor General Ryan Park. More than 20 states have passed legislation in recent years that have revived time-barred civil claims for child sexual abuse, his brief said.
Noah Hock, a lawyer representing the Gaston County Board of Education, contended there was no need for bypassing the Court of Appeals, calling the provision’s unconstitutionality a “well-settled legal principle in North Carolina.”
“Well-intentioned as it may have been, the revival window has opened every school, every church, every nonprofit, every youth organization in our state to liability for acts alleged to have occurred decades ago,” Hock wrote.
Gary Scott Goins, the other defendant in and a former wrestling coach at East Gaston High School, was convicted of 17 sex-related crimes in 2014 and sentenced to at least 34 years in prison.
The Republican-controlled legislature approved the SAFE Act unanimously, and it was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The measure also extended going forward the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil claims until a plaintiff reaches age 28.