The plaintiff, who has been called Jane Doe, filed a complaint on August 11, 1998, seeking damages for injuries arising from sexual abuse, some forty years after the abuse is alleged to have occurred. A judge in the Superior Court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff's claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. In an order and unpublished memorandum pursuant to its rule 1:28, the Appeals Court reversed, citing Ross v. Garabedian, 433 Mass. 360 (2001). Doe v. Creighton, 55 Mass.App.Ct. 1111 (2002). We granted the defendant's application
1. Background. Viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, see Ravnikar v. Bogojavlensky, 438 Mass. 627, 628 (2003), the record indicates the following. In the spring of 1958, the plaintiff was in her senior year of high school. She turned seventeen years old on May 6 of that year, and planned to join a convent after graduation. The defendant, Gerard Creighton, was a Roman Catholic priest assigned to the plaintiff's parish. During the spring and summer of 1958, the plaintiff participated in a number of parish youth activities organized by the defendant. During the course of these activities, she and the defendant engaged in a series of sexual acts: the defendant, at various times, rubbed her breasts, touched her genitals, and asked her to rub both his buttocks and his exposed penis.
After joining the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the plaintiff began suffering symptoms of grief, shame, and depression. Although she left the convent in 1968 and subsequently married, the symptoms persisted. According to her treating psychiatrist, the plaintiff's depression stemmed from her feelings of extreme unworthiness and defectiveness. While the plaintiff understood that her depression stemmed from her feelings of self-hatred, she failed to recognize that those feelings of self-hatred were, in turn, the product of her sexual abuse. Instead, she saw her sexual experiences with the defendant as additional evidence of, rather than the source of, her defectiveness. According to the plaintiff, she did not come to realize that the defendant's conduct
2. Discussion. General Laws c. 260, § 4C, requires that a civil suit alleging sexual abuse of a minor be commenced within three years of the alleged abusive act, "or within three years of the time the victim discovered or reasonably should have discovered that an emotional or psychological injury or condition was caused by said act."
A plaintiff who invokes the discovery rule by claiming that her delay in filing suit stems from a failure to recognize the cause of her injuries bears the burden of proving both an actual lack of causal knowledge and the objective reasonableness of that lack of knowledge. See Riley v. Presnell, 409 Mass. 239, 243-247 (1991); Phinney v. Morgan, 39 Mass.App.Ct. 202, 206 (1995). The question when the plaintiff knew or should
We examine the reasonableness of the plaintiff's delay in filing suit from the perspective of "a reasonable person who has been subjected to the conduct which forms the basis for the plaintiff's complaint." Riley v. Presnell, supra at 245. This is not, however, a subjective test; the only individualized characteristics that we consider in making a reasonable person analysis under G. L. c. 260, § 4C, are those that stem directly from the complained-of tort.
While we recognize that, in some circumstances, sexual abuse victims may develop coping mechanisms that might obscure the source of their injuries, see, e.g., Hammer v. Hammer, 142 Wis.2d 257, 261-263 (Ct. App. 1987), a plaintiff who brings suit beyond the normal statutory limitations period may not reach a jury simply by presenting evidence that sexual abuse took place.
That additional evidence is not present here. Based on the record before us, neither the nature of the defendant's conduct nor the injuries reported by the plaintiff should have prevented, or even hindered, the plaintiff's realization that she had been harmed by his alleged abuse. There is no evidence, for example, that the defendant made any attempt to cloak his actions behind a facade of normalcy or otherwise disguise the nature of the abuse. Cf. Riley v. Presnell, supra at 246-247 (abuse portrayed as therapeutic technique); Armstrong v. Lamy, 938 F.Supp. 1018, 1039-1040 (D. Mass. 1996) (abuse by teacher could be mistakenly perceived as normal part of intimate personal relationship). Nor did the timing of the abuse act to conceal the causal relationship. While a person who is victimized at an early age or over a period of years might, later in life, perceive the resulting psychological symptoms as having always been present and thus fail to connect them to a particular triggering event, in this case the abuse began when the plaintiff was sixteen and ended when she was seventeen. Thus, the defendant's conduct and its consequent effects would hardly have been a distant memory when the plaintiff reached her eighteenth birthday, the point at which the limitations period of § 4C normally begins to run. Finally, the connection between the abuse alleged here and the plaintiff's symptoms should have been particularly obvious because the abuse was a watershed event; the plaintiff's symptoms first appeared in the immediate wake of the abusive conduct. Thus the record, viewed objectively, depicts an overtly abusive relationship that produced an immediate and obvious injury as the plaintiff neared the age of maturity. There is, in short, no evidence tending to support the plaintiff's contention that an ordinary, reasonable person in her position would fail to realize, for almost four decades, that her injuries were caused by the defendant.
We recognize that the record contains a psychiatric report that concludes that a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position
Our decision in Ross v. Garabedian, 433 Mass. 360 (2001), is not to the contrary. While the bulk of that decision was devoted to a discussion whether the plaintiff actually knew of the connection between the abuse alleged and the injuries that it caused, see id. at 363, 365-366, we also concluded that the question whether a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position would have recognized the link between the two presented a triable issue. See id. at 363. However, the plaintiff in the Ross case was in his early teens when the abuse occurred and the psychological injuries produced by the defendant's conduct were not immediately apparent. See id. at 361. The Ross case
SOSMAN, J. (concurring). I agree that there are at least tenuous distinctions between the facts of this case and those in Ross v. Garabedian, 433 Mass. 360 (2001), but, in my view, there should be no need to tease out such distinctions. For the reasons articulated in my dissent in that case, id. at 367-372 (Sosman, J., dissenting), the record there also demonstrated that, many years prior to commencement of the action, the plaintiff "reasonably should have discovered that an emotional or psychological injury or condition was caused by" the sexual abuse. Id. at 367 (Sosman, J., dissenting), quoting G. L. c. 260, § 4C. That case indulged in the subjective analysis that today's decision rightly eschews. There, as here, a sympathetic explication of why a particular plaintiff did not have actual knowledge does not satisfy the objective test of what a reasonable person would have understood about the causal relationship between prior sexual abuse and later psychological harm. Today's decision announces that the Ross case "represents the outer boundaries of the discovery rule," ante at 287, which hopefully will operate to confine that erroneous decision to its precise facts.