Should someone be allowed to file a lawsuit for child sexual assault if it happened over 55 years ago? Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting who starred in the critically acclaimed Romeo and Juliet did just that recently in California. They are suing Paramount Pictures for $500 million alleging sexual abuse, harassment, and fraud during the shooting of the film in 1967.
Attorneys for the actors filed their lawsuit right before three years waiving the statute of limitations known as the California Child Victims Act was set to expire in December 2022. The window allowed adults who had been sexually abused as children to file civil cases regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego drafted the bill based on her belief that anyone assaulted as a child should not be barred from suing those responsible, no matter how much time has passed. Governor Newsom agreed and signed the bill into law.
California wasn’t the first state to suspend the statute of limitations for child sexual assault cases. New York did the same in 2020 for one year. The result was hundreds of lawsuits naming schools, both public and private, churches, sports leagues, and others as defendants. In California, thousands of lawsuits were filed alleging abuse dating back decades with many of these claims being filed right before the December 31st, 2022 deadline.
“In the era of #metoo, there is also a heightened awareness of child sexual assault. The zero-tolerance attitude that exists today wasn’t there decades ago. It’s important to recognize adults who were abused during those times were much less likely to come forward. Extending the statute of limitations or even eliminating them recognizes this disparity and allows survivors to seek justice,” said J.J. Dominguez of The Dominguez Firm. “Given the recent changes to state laws around the nation, survivors should consider consulting with a child sexual assault attorney to see if they can file a claim against those responsible for their abuse in the past,” he concluded.
As for the Romeo & Juliet lawsuit, even though Hussey and Whiting firmly blame Zeffirelli for deceiving them and forcing them to shoot a nude scene, they are not suing his estate. Instead, their lawsuit is against Paramount Pictures. They claim the studio should have been aware of what was happening on set, put a stop to it, and prevented any offending images from being distributed. It will be interesting to see how that case transpires.
Those who argue against getting rid of the statute of limitations point to fuzzy memories and a lack of evidence, which can include the death of the perpetrator if enough time has passed. Proponents argue continuing the status quo effectively victim-blames survivors by claiming they should have come forward sooner. If there is something positive to be taken from all of this, it’s that child sexual assault is no longer seen as something to be covered up. Instead, the focus is and must continue to be protecting our children at all costs.