After much discussion, the Colorado House gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would open the door for child victims of sexual assault to file civil lawsuits against organizations that employed their attackers and covered up their actions.
Senate Bill 88 targets organizations that knew or should have known about sexual assaults on children by people they employ or allow to work as volunteers.
It lets them file civil lawsuits, and the bill allows that to happen even for cases that are more than 60 years old.
The bill limits damages to $500,000, but allows that to go to $1 million in certain circumstances, but only for private groups.
“What we have here in Senate Bill 88 is an opportunity for youth who have been sexually abused to be able to hold an organization who covered up, who they can prove should know or should have known, covered up their sexual abuse,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, who introduced the bill with Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta.
Some opponents said they understood why the bill should allow such damage awards, but they didn’t like the idea that it gives public entities, such as school districts, a lower damage cap, which is in existing law.
Under current law, the state’s Government Immunity Act shields public entities from certain lawsuits, particularly in personal injury claims. There are exceptions to that act, but for them, damages are limited to no more than $350,000.
Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Falcon, said it’s not fair to give victims an avenue to collect higher damages against private organizations, but a lower one for government entities.
“The public sector seems to get a pass because the damages that a victim can go after in what is arguably the most heinous of acts that any human can perpetrate upon a child are limited,” Geitner said. “Under the bill as it currently reads, there is a protection specifically carved out for government entities. The private sector does not have that same level of protection.”
Soper said that while he would, under different circumstances, set damage caps for public entities the same as private groups, the bill is significant because it does, for the first time, allow child sexual assault claims to be filed against governments.
He said it’s not possible to raise damage awards on such cases against government entities without opening the door to large awards in all other cases that might be files against the public sector.
“If we were to move (damages) to where it would be the same, we all of a sudden would place the rest of Colorado law out of balance,” Soper said. “The balance right now is (the immunity act) kicks in to knock down a higher award, and then you would have to apply the same argument to everything else that happens by a state actor in state government.”
The bill requires a final House vote, which is expected to happen today. Because of changes, it will need to return to the Senate for a final vote. That chamber approved its own version of the bill last month on a 31-4 vote.
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