RALEIGH — A portion of a North Carolina law that gave adults with child sexual abuse claims two additional years recently to seek civil damages is constitutional, a divided state appeals court has ruled.
By a 2-1 decision, a panel of Court of Appeals judges reversed on Tuesday a similarly divided ruling by trial judges whose majority had declared in late 2021 that the General Assembly could not revive such a cause of action after the statute of limitations set in law for such claims expired.
The case involves three former Gaston County student-athletes who are suing both the coach who was convicted of crimes against team members and the county school board. The three students were members on the East Gaston High School wrestling team during the mid-1990s and early 2000s.
Absent the 2019 law called the SAFE Child Act, child abuse victims effectively have until turning age 21 to file such a lawsuit. But the law said such suits could still be filed in 2020 and 2021 if the victim was 21 or over. Tuesday’s split decision means the state Supreme Court probably will have the final say in the matter.
The outcome could affect schools, churches and other organizations faced with such civil litigation, as well as plaintiffs who have filed scores of such suits.
The trial judge panel had dismissed the lawsuit, saying the revived statute of limitations violated due process provisions found in the North Carolina Constitution, and that a defense based on such limitations was unconditionally protected.
But Court of Appeals Judge Allison Riggs, who was elevated by Gov. Roy Cooper this week to the Supreme Court and wrote the prevailing opinion, disagreed. She wrote that the Gaston County Board of Education had failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the state constitution contains an “express provision” that revived statute of limits are prohibited. She also said the law’s two-year window otherwise “passes constitutional muster.”
“Because adopting the Board’s position would require us to strike down as unconstitutional a duly enacted statute of our General Assembly and disregard the narrowly crafted legislation designed to address a stunningly pressing problem affecting vulnerable children across the state, we decline to convert an affirmative defense into a free pass for those who engaged in and covered up atrocious child sexual abuse,” Riggs wrote.
Court of Appeals Judge Fred Gore agreed with Riggs’ reversal decision.
In the dissenting opinion, Judge Jeff Carpenter wrote the majority was overruling the results of several binding legal cases from the Court of Appeals, as well as a key 1933 state Supreme Court decision. He said he believes reviving the statute of limitations violates a vested right, he added.
“I completely agree: Sexual abuse of children is vile. I agree that striking down legislation as facially unconstitutional is strong medicine, only suitable for clear constitutional violations,” Carpenter wrote, but “the stability and predictability of our justice system requires that we adhere to the precedents” of the appellate courts.
Gary Scott Goins, the former wrestling coach at East Gaston, was convicted of 17 sex-related crimes in 2014 and sentenced to at least 34 years in prison. Goins did not file a legal brief for this appeal.
The Republican-controlled legislature approved the SAFE Act unanimously, and it was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The state intervened in the lawsuit, with lawyers under Attorney General Josh Stein defending the law. Stein said Wednesday he was pleased with Tuesday’s decision, saying “this ability to hold accountable abusers is critical to helping people process traumatic child abuse and recover.”
The decision came more than a year after the state Supreme Court ordered that the case bypass the intermediate-level appeals court and be heard directly by the justices. The court’s four registered Democrats at the time voted to take up the case. But a new edition of the Supreme Court — five of whom are registered Republicans — decided in March the Court of Appeals should rule in the case first.