Saturday, August 25, 2007

2003 Revival of Child Molestation Actions Did Not Apply Unless a Timely Government Claim Was Made at the Time of Original Acrual

Revival Statute Held to Applicable Only to Nonpublic Entities

Shirk v. Vista Unified School District
(Aug. 20, 2007, S133687)
17 page opinion

Shirk v. Vista Unified School District applies only to a special category of lawsuits that were filed in 2003. As a 6 to 1 decision, its description of the process of statutory interpretation that led to its holding is its source of general interest.

In a decision directly applicable only to a subset of tort claims based upon childhood sexual molestation that were filed against public entities during the calendar year 2003, the Supreme Court held that unless the plaintiff made a timely claim under the government claims act when the claim originally accrued, the claim was not revived by Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1(c).

CCP 340.1(c) provides, relevant part "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any claim for damages . . . that would otherwise be barred as of January 1, 2003, solely because the applicable statute of limitations has or had expired, is revived, and, in that case a cause of action may be commenced within one year of January 1, 2003.

The question addressed in this case was whether CCP 340.1(c) also revived the period for presenting a claim under the government tort claims statute. The presentation of a claim to a public entity and the rejection or deemed rejection of that claim is a condition precedent to any law suit alleging a tort claim against a public entity.

The causes of action against the School District in this lawsuit were based upon the sexual molestation of plaintiff Linda Shirk by and employee of the School District during 1978 and 1979. Shirk's claim originally accrued in November, 1979, the time of the last sexual conduct. She did not present a claim to the School District within the government tort claim time limit applicable at that time (100 days). Shirk presented the School District with a claim on September 12, 2003. The School District rejected that claim as untimely. The trial court agreed and sustained the School District's demurrer but the Court of Appeal held that 340.1(c) extended Government Code section 911.2's deadline for presenting a tort claim to a public entity defendant. The Supreme Court's decision states that it granted review because the decision in this case was in conflict with a nearly simultaneous Fourth District Court of Appeal decision. (That decision, County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 1263 did not deal with subsection (c) or a revived claim and arguably could have been harmonized with the Court of Appeal's decision in this action.)

Section 340.1(c) makes no reference to a revival of the period to present a claim under the government claims statute. The Court of Appeal inferred that the Legislature must have been aware that by expressly reviving causes of action against entity defendants, it was implicitly reviving the deadline for presenting claims to public entity defendants. The Supreme Court disagreed upon the grounds that the statute only revived claims barred solely by the statute of limitations.

The Supreme Court also looked at the legislative history of the statute which it describes as virtually silent as to its impact on a public entity defendant. The Supreme Court also noted the lack of any mention of the potential fiscal impact of reviving public entity liability in the legislative history. The Court also examined the public policies underlying the claim presentation requirement. Those requirements give greater protection to public entities than to nonpublic entities because the costs of public entity liability are borne by the taxpayers.

The presentation of a claim to a public entity leads to an obligation to file a lawsuit against that public entity within a certain period of time. The Supreme Court acknowledged that its interpretation excluded public entities from 340.1(c) and made the revival of actions applicable only to nonpublic entities.
Justice Kennard wrote the opinion. Chief Justice George and Justices Baxter, Chin, Moreno and Corrigan concurred.

Justice Werdegar dissented.

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