‘Historic’ moment: Bill to let child sexual assault survivors sue after many years nears finish line

Legislation heads back to Senate after House committee amendment

Soper and Michaelson Jenet
Reps. Matt Soper, left, and Dafna Michaelson Jenet speak before a second-reading vote on Senate Bill 73 on March 26, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

After years of attempts, Colorado lawmakers appear poised to pass a bill that would allow survivors of sexual assault to sue their abusers long after the alleged abuse occurred.

Senate Bill 21-73 passed the House on third reading March 29. It would allow people who survived sexual assault or other sexual crimes as children to bring a lawsuit against their abusers at any time after the crimes occurred. Survivors of child sexual misconduct currently have just six years to bring a lawsuit after they turn 18.

The bill would not apply retroactively, but it would affect cases of child sexual misconduct where the victim had not turned 24 by Jan. 1, 2022. SB-73 also allows people to sue organizations or entities such as school districts or churches that turned a blind eye to abuse, with no expiration date.

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“It feels historic,” Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who is SB-73’s House sponsor, said in an interview. “It’s been well over 20 years that this has been worked on. It’s never gotten this far … It’s overwhelming — I mean, in a good way.”

Dafna Michaelson Jenet
State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat from Commerce City, represents Colorado House District 30. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

SB-73 is sponsored by Sens. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, and Don Coram, R-Montrose; as well as Reps. Michaelson Jenet and Matt Soper, R-Delta, in the House.

The bill was amended in the House Judiciary Committee to narrow the scope of offenses for which someone could bring a civil lawsuit against an abuser or institution. Senate lawmakers, who already passed SB-73, must approve the amended version of the bill before it is sent to the governor for his signature.

Some members of the Judiciary Committee felt the original version of the bill was too broad in scope and would do away with the statute of limitations for a wide range of crimes that could be construed as sexual misconduct — such as streaking across a college campus, according to one example Soper gave on the House floor.

The committee’s amendment limits the sexual misconduct to which SB-73 would apply to felony sex crimes and class 1 misdemeanors, said Raana Simmons, director of public affairs for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Notably, the bill wouldn’t require that the person being sued for sexual misconduct have been convicted, or even charged, with committing any of those crimes. In order to bring a lawsuit, the plaintiff would simply have to allege that the type of misconduct committed by the defendant was a felony or class 1 misdemeanor.

The legal standard for evidence is lower for a civil judgment than a criminal verdict — which requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” — but the person bringing a lawsuit still has to provide “a preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that whatever the plaintiff alleges is “more likely than not,” Simmons explained. That evidence might include a DNA sample from the victim or email communication describing misconduct, for example.

The amendment defining eligible types of sexual misconduct addresses lawmakers’ concerns and adds specificity to the legislation, Simmons said.

“We think that is a well-vetted definition that is going to help a lot of people in Colorado,” she said, explaining that the bill also aligns with a definition in the Colorado attorney general’s 2019 report outlining sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Catholic Church.

Last year, a similar bill, House Bill 20-1296, was postponed indefinitely by the Senate sponsor, in part because it applied not retroactively but only to survivors for whom the statute of limitations had not already expired. In other words, child sexual assault survivors who had already turned 24 would not have been able to sue their abusers if it had gone into effect. The same is true with SB-73.

The bill’s sponsor last year, Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, said at the time that she thought for that reason it wouldn’t go far enough to help survivors.

There is dispute over whether legislation that applies retroactively would violate Colorado’s Constitution, so the sponsors last year had wanted to keep that part out, Simmons explained. But this year, SB-73’s sponsors are also bringing separate legislation that addresses this question.

“It really feels so powerful to be able to look the survivors who’ve been working on this for so long in the eye and say, ‘Look, we believe you.'”Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet of SB-73

Senate Bill 21-88 would provide an opportunity for survivors to sue their abusers even if the six-year statute of limitations had already expired.

That bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11, by a vote of 4-1. It’s headed next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

SB-88 faces steeper odds than its counterpart, SB-73, because some lawmakers think it is unconstitutional. But SB-73 didn’t pass the House with unanimous support, either.

Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Watkins Republican, said he opposed SB-73 because it didn’t adequately protect the family members of people who might be sued after their death.

“Let’s say you fight the accusations and you win,” Bockenfeld said on the House floor March 29. “You still lose. You lose because your attorney’s fees, all the depositions that have to be taken to defend your loved one’s estate, will chew up the estate.”

Bockenfeld made a motion for a final House vote on SB-73 to be delayed while lawmakers worked on changing that section of the legislation, but the motion failed on a vote of 49-14. State law already provides that civil claims can’t be brought against a person’s estate more than a year after the person’s death, Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Aurora, had argued.

In the end, SB-73 passed the House on a third-reading vote of 57-6, with two lawmakers excused. It now heads back to the Senate so lawmakers there can approve the House Judiciary Committee’s amendment.

The bill’s sponsors expect that the most nail-biting moments are over.

“It really feels so powerful to be able to look the survivors who’ve been working on this for so long in the eye and say, ‘Look, we believe you,'” said Michaelson Jenet, who spoke candidly on the House floor about her personal experiences with sexual assault.

SB-73 wouldn’t allow sexual assault survivors who’ve been testifying on such legislation for years to sue their abusers, she pointed out, because the statute of limitations has already expired for them.

“Truly they were in this to protect the next guy or girl, and it’s been quite a battle,” Michaelson Jenet said of those survivors. “It’s really painful retelling your story year after year after year after year. And it’s the honor of my life that I get to work on this bill.”

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