Supporters of the effort vowed to keep trying after three bills trying to change the statute of limitations failed this legislative session.

Efforts to provide childhood victims of sexual assault in Hawaii a new opportunity to file civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers failed again this legislative session.

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Three bills related to this matter — Senate Bill 238, House Bill 483 and House Bill 582 — all died, as similar proposals have over the past decade.

“We’re going to keep trying, believe me,” said Rep. Linda Ichiyama, a member of the Women’s Legislative Caucus. “There have been renewed efforts to extend the statute of limitations, like California and New York and many other states have done, and I think even though the bills were not successful this year, it’s still an effort we are pursuing in the future.”

Ichiyama said some of the concerns with changing the statute are due to concerns about “stale evidence.” 

The idea behind criminal statutes of limitations is to ensure criminal trials (and possible subsequent convictions) are based on evidence that has not deteriorated over time.

Over the past decade, more than a dozen bills aimed at amending the statute of limitations have failed to pass the Legislature.
(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hawaii’s civil statute of limitations sets deadlines — ranging from two to 10 years depending on the type of case or procedure — for lawsuits and other civil actions to be filed. The date of discovery of an incident is usually when time starts counting down. 

If the civil claim is not filed before the established deadline, the opposing party can use the statute of limitations in their defense and file a motion to dismiss the case on the basis that the time allotted to file it has already passed. Any legal claim will be lost forever once the case is dismissed. 

“People change jobs, they may not keep records, and so an entity may not be able to defend themselves,” Ichiyama said. 

“I’ve always felt it’s the other way around,” Sen. Karl Rhoads said, “because the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, and if there’s no records or witnesses it’s just your word against whoever you’re suing.”

The Women’s Legislative Caucus tried to address these concerns in January with HB 582 by making it prospective only, a move that Ichiyama described as “a compromise between the concerns about old evidence and losing witnesses, if the bill passed it would only go back 26 years.”

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The bill crossed over to the Senate but died last month. 

“This is kind of a very fine point that I think not a lot of people understood about the bill this year,” Ichiyama said, “which is different than prior years, we aren’t trying to revive any stale claims.” 

“Our bill would help someone who is 8 years old now, 8, or 18, all the way up to age 26 who still has a valid claim,” she said. “Those people would be able to bring a claim until age 50.”

A Decade Of Failed Efforts

At least 32 states have no criminal or civil statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse allegations. This list of bills from the last decade recognized Hawaii’s statute of limitations for civil cases of sexual assault while looking to amend or eradicate it.

Unlike past window periods, HB 582 would not have revived any expired claims. In 2012, Hawaii updated its sexual abuse and assault civil statute of limitation laws. Previously set at age 20, or three years after discovery, Hawaii moved the age to 26 or three years from discovery of the abuse.

In 2012, a two-year window period also went into effect, allowing survivors whose claims were previously expired under the old laws, the opportunity to file a claim. Since the original window expired in 2014, Hawaii has extended the window to be open for a total of six years, the longest of any state in the country.

That window closed on April 24, 2020. 

“The discussions around extending the statute of limitations at that time (2020) were put on hold because we had the window period to revive any claims that had expired, that’s how we got to the huge Kamehameha (sexual abuse) case, but to me, that also showed us how long it takes for a survivor to overcome their trauma,” Ichiyama said.

‘This Stuff Can Ruin Someone’s Life’

The consistency in which these bills have emerged over the past decade in the Legislature may be in response to high-profile cases such as the Punahou and Kamehameha cases, in which major private educational institutions in the state were found to be havens for crimes against children.

“Hawaii’s current statute of limitations to age 26, and three-year discovery rule, do not sufficiently account for the time needed by survivors to break their silence” said The Sex Abuse Treatment Center in their testimony for SB 163

“Many mental health experts have told us that’s too young,” Ichiyama added. 

Under these limitations, many survivors of childhood sexual abuse may be prevented from seeking civil redress in the courts. 

“This stuff can ruin someone’s life,” Rhoads said. “Money doesn’t make up for everything, but it does take care of some of the problems you have if your career has been knocked off course because you couldn’t deal with what happened to you.”

In 2014, Hawaii eliminated the statute of limitations on the criminal side for first- or second-degree sexual assault and continuous sexual assault of a minor under the age of 14.

“I would say our record is actually pretty good on the issue despite the fact we haven’t been able to get this bill through,” Rhoads said.

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