Michigan Senate passes legislation inspired by Nassar abuse survivors

The fast-tracked legislation will extend the statute of limitations, restrict claims of immunity, and require more people to report suspected abuse. The legislation will 'take Michigan out of the dark ages' in terms of sexual assault laws, says one bill sponsor.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Former gymnast and abuse survivor Amanda Smith speaks with her husband at her side during the victim impact statement portion of the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, a former team USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges, in Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 22.

The Michigan Senate on Wednesday passed bills inspired by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case, voting to retroactively give the imprisoned sports doctor's victims more time to sue, restrict governments' ability to claim immunity from such lawsuits, and require more people to report suspected abuse to authorities.

The fast-tracked legislation was sent to the House for further consideration more than two weeks after Nassar victims helped unveil it at the Capitol. Measures that would extend the statute of limitations and strip the immunity defense in certain cases had received pushback from universities, schools, local governments, businesses, and the Catholic Church over the broader financial implications of facing an unknown number of suits for old claims.

"This package of bills delivers justice, justice for the children who were sexually assaulted," said a lead sponsor, state Sen. Margaret O'Brien (R) of Portage, Mich.

Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, where Mr. Nassar worked for decades, have been sued by more than 250 girls and women. Among the school's arguments in federal court are that many accusers took too long to sue and that it has immunity.

People sexually abused as children in Michigan generally have until their 19th birthdays to sue, which critics argue is inadequate because victims often wait to report the abuse due to fear. Under a bill approved 28-7, those abused as children in 1997 or later would have a one-year window in which to file suit retroactively – but not those abused as adults.

Prospectively, victims abused in childhood would have until their 48th birthdays to sue. For others, the three-year time limit would rise to 10 years.

Another measure, which passed 28-7 in the GOP-controlled chamber, would eliminate the immunity defense in civil suits for entities that are negligent in the hiring, supervision, or training of employees, or if the governmental agency knew or should have known and failed to report sexual misconduct to law enforcement.

In recent days, the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a former state Supreme Court justice, and lobbying organizations representing universities, K-12 schools, and local governments had urged senators to delay voting or to only advance less divisive proposals.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey (R) of Clarklake, Mich., who was among seven Republicans to vote against some bills, said they are "precedent-setting and very dangerous – things that we don't have any clue what the unintended consequences are."

But supporters countered that Michigan's laws related to child sexual abuse lag behind many other states.

"At the end of the day, we have to decide whether we want to stand with the survivors or whether we want to stand with the big institutions on this," said state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D) of East Lansing, Mich. "I think it's fairly simply where we should be morally and that's where I'm going to be."

A bill that passed 34 to 1 would add college employees, school bus drivers, and youth sports coaches, trainers, and volunteers to the state's list of people who must report suspected abuse or neglect to child protective services. It now is a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine for professionals who fail to report.

Under the legislation, the maximum penalty would rise to a two-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine. Unpaid volunteers would face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

State Sen. David Knezek (D) of Dearborn Heights, Mich., sponsor of the bill to extend the civil statute of limitations, said the legislation would "take Michigan out of the dark ages when it comes to our laws surrounding sexual assault."

Before voting, senators changed the most contentious bills to let accusers sue for claims dating to 1997 – when gymnast Larissa Boyce said she first notified Michigan State's then-gymnastics coach of concerns about Nassar – instead of 1993, when Nassar became a physician. A provision that would have allowed people abused as adults to sue retroactively was removed.

Nassar's accusers, many of whom gave impact statements at sentencing hearings in January and February, had expressed outrage over opposition to the legislation. After the state's 15 public universities expressed concerns in a letter, victim Amanda Smith tweeted: "I guess this just shows me how much a human being is actually worth to them ... nothing, we mean nothing to them."

Earlier Wednesday, Michigan State's interim president John Engler met with state Sen. Arlan Meekhof, the Republican Senate leader, to discuss the bills. University spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said she could not comment on what was said but confirmed that the school had been asking the Senate to slow down.

"We share the Senate's concern for making sure nothing like the crimes committed by Larry Nassar ever happens again," she said. "But opening the door to massive numbers of retroactive lawsuits and eroding governmental immunity has the potential for many unexpected consequences."

Mick Grewal, a lawyer for the victims, estimated that 81 of the 255 who have sued Michigan State and others will face no time-limit issues because they were assaulted within three years of filing suit, are still minors, or they sued before their 19th birthday. The statute of limitations for the rest should be extended, according to a newly filed motion in federal court, because the defendants "fraudulently concealed" the abuse for years despite at least 10 girls and parents having raised concerns with coaches, trainers, and doctors.

This article was reported by The Associated Press.

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