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Florida Supreme Court Rejects Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a statute of limitations bars two women from pursuing a lawsuit against an Orange County church and other defendants over allegations that the women were sexually abused by a church worker when they were children.

Justices upheld lower-court decisions against the women, identified by the initials S.B. and R.R., who alleged they were molested between 1996 and 2005 by Daniel Heffield, an employee of New Life Community Church. The issues in Thursday's ruling involved negligence-based civil claims filed in 2014 against the church, affiliated church organizations and Heffield's parents, Ron and Priscilla Heffield, who also worked at the church.

It did not involve claims filed directly against Daniel Heffield, who is in prison on unrelated child-pornography charges, according to the ruling.

S.B. alleged that she was molested multiple times from 1998 to 2005, when she was age 4 through 11. R.R. alleged she was molested once in 1996, when she was 4. The Supreme Court ruling does not detail the relationship between S.B. and R.R. and has posted online few documents in the case.

The court's majority opinion pointed, in part, to a four-year statute of limitations in state law and focused heavily on when that time period began to run --- what is known as "accrual." It said state law did not allow for a delay of the accrual period, which means that the statute of limitations on the alleged abuse ran out before the lawsuit was filed in 2014.

"Although this case arises in the troubling context of child sexual abuse, it is ultimately about the separation of powers and the proper role of courts in applying statutes of limitations," Justice Carlos Muniz wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined fully by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Alan Lawson and John Couriel.

But Justice Jorge Labarga, in a partial dissent joined by Justice Ricky Polston, argued that the claims filed by S.B. were "timely" and did not accrue until she was an adult. R.R. told her parents about the alleged molestation shortly after it occurred, but S.B. did not tell anyone about her alleged abuse until after she was 18.

"S.B.'s circumstances perfectly illustrate the rationale behind delayed accrual," Labarga wrote. "S.B. was sexually abused as a young child. She was unaware of the nature of the abuse when it occurred because Daniel (Heffield) told her that he was punishing her for misbehaving. Not realizing that she had been sexually abused, S.B. did not think to tell her parents about the incidents. S.B.'s parents had no reason to suspect that she had been abused and therefore did not realize that S.B. had a cause of action that only they could assert on her behalf. Therefore, her claim could not have accrued until she reached the age of majority because there was no person capable of bringing a cause of action on her behalf before then."

An Orange County circuit judge ruled in favor of the church and the other defendants, and the 5th District Court of Appeal upheld that decision.

But the Supreme Court took up the case after district courts of appeal across much of the state split on such issues. The 5th District Court of Appeal aligned with the 2nd District Court of Appeal, while the 3rd District Court of Appeal and 4th District Court of Appeal viewed the issues differently.

Muniz wrote that the 3rd District Court of Appeal and the 4th District Court of Appeal went "outside the statutory framework and held that a minor's claims do not accrue until the minor reaches the age of majority or until a proper representative knew or should have known of the minor's claims."

"The courts did not purport to be engaging in statutory interpretation," he wrote. "Rather, the courts undertook a form of lawmaking. The Third and Fourth Districts understood themselves as having the authority to adopt a common law delayed accrual rule for minors as an overlay on the statutory framework."

(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Saunders contributed to this report.)

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