As the Ohio House prepares to resume hearings on a bill to allow victims of deceased Ohio State University doctor Richard Strauss to file lawsuits against the university, its fate remains unclear.
However, minority Democrats and the Republican governor are asking whether it’s time to end a separate statute of limitations on filing criminal charges in sexual assault cases.
House Bill 249 would suspend Ohio’s statute of limitations for civil cases stemming from sexual assaults, but for only Strauss’ victims.
Gov. Mike DeWine is legally leery of the concept of only granting Ohio State victims the ablity to pursue belated lawsuits.
“I think that it’s probably not appropriate to have a bill that treats different victims, who are really in the same position, differently,” he said Tuesday during a forum sponsored by the Associated Press. “A bill that would only apply to certain victims raises some ethical, moral and constitutional challenges.”
The former Ohio State doctor sexually abused at least 177 students over 20 years while working in both the athletic department and student health center, according to an investigation by the Perkins Cole law firm.
About 350 accusers have sued the university in federal court, but they have not been able to reach a settlement. And, that doesn’t sit well with Ohio’s elected officials, including DeWine.
“I’ve become very frustrated and disappointed in the fact that these parties have not been able to come together,” said House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford. “I can’t fathom that you could have someone in a position like that for over two decades and not have anyone know.”
“This has always been very challenging to watch this play out with the victims of Dr. Strauss and what happened at Ohio State, also knowing that waiting in the wing is the statute of limitation elimination for (criminal) sexual assault and rape,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron.
“We have been unable to secure a hearing on this bill, and I find it very it very troubling that we are willing to have this conversation for a very specific group of victims, but not all the victims,” she said.
DeWine continues to ask lawmakers to repeal the statute of limitations on filing criminal charges in sex offense cases. “I cannot see any kind of moral justification for saying, ‘You’re home free,’ after so many years … it uniquely traumatizes the victim.”
In Ohio, criminal rape charges can be filed for up to 20 years in most cases and up to 25 years for certain cases like those involving children. The statute of limitations for filing lawsuits is two years for adult victims of sexual assault and age 30 for people who were abused as children. The average of the victims coming forward in the Strauss case is 50.
State Reps. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, and Tavia Galonski, D-Akron, are sponsoring bills that would end criminal and civil limitations for rape and sexual assault. Boggs is also working with Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, to drum up support for a bill to remove the cap on non-economic damages for victims of sexual assault.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that a woman raped by her pastor at a Delaware County church when she was age 15 was only entitled to $250,000 in pain-and-suffering damages – not the jury’s award of $3.5 million – due to the tort reform cap on non-economic damages.
DeWine said he had not pondered whether the cap should be eliminated, but Sykes pointed to the case as proof that the law needed to change.
Householder appeared to agree, in part, with that position during Tuesday’s forum.
“I’d be more than happy to have that debate again,” Householder said. “But its just I remember back in those days in the early 2000’s that seemed to be the overwhelming reason why we felt we needed to be where we are at as far as the statute of limitations are concerned.”
Sykes responded by saying “This is my plea for more women leadership because perhaps we will see more change on these laws … We cannot start picking and choosing winners based on the fact of who we may or may not be able to relate to.”