Friday, July 23, 2021

Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Abuse Victim's Suit Against Diocese Barred By Limitations Statute

In Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, (PA Sup. Ct., July 21, 2021), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision held that the statute of limitations bars a suit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and its bishops for their role in covering up and facilitating a series of sexual assaults by plaintiff's childhood priest. Suit was filed 35 years after the assaults. Plaintiff sued after a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed clergy abuse. The court held that the discovery rule did not toll the statute:

Because her claims for damages against the Diocese are based on [her priest's] alleged conduct, she was on inquiry notice regarding other potentially liable actors, including the Diocese, as a matter of law.

The court also rejected a claim that fraudulent concealment tolled the statute:

Under our jurisprudence, before a plaintiff may invoke the principles of fraudulent concealment, the plaintiff must use reasonable diligence to investigate her claims.

Chief Justice Baer filed a concurring opinion. Justice Wecht, joined by Justice Todd, filed a dissenting opinion, saying in part:

The Majority’s conclusion that Rice failed to exercise reasonable diligence in investigating the Diocese’s role in her attack is based on nothing more than the fact that Rice knew that she was assaulted on church property by a priest employed by the Diocese.... This analysis dramatically oversimplifies the reasonable diligence inquiry.

AP reports on the decision. [Thanks to Tom Rutledge for the lead.]