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Kentucky Supreme Court: Statute of limitations changes not retroactive for previously time barred claims

Photo by Brandon Porter

FRANKFORT, Kentucky (BP) – The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled that a law passed in 2017 changing the statute of limitations imposed on sexual abuse cases “does not provide for the revival of time-barred claims” against third parties.

The decision reverses a Court of Appeals decision that said third party defendants could be held liable retroactively for claims made by sexual abuse survivors who filed after the original statute of limitations had expired.

The plaintiff in the civil case is Samantha Killary, who was abused when she was an adolescent. Sean Jackman, her adoptive father and a member of the Louisville Metro Police Department, was convicted in 2020 of molesting his daughter over a period of years.

The abuse dated back to 2003, according to court records.

Also named as defendants in an ongoing suit are Sean Jackman’s father Rick Jackman, and Linda Thompson, Sean Jackman’s former lieutenant, who Killary alleges not only knew about the abuse, but participated. Rick Jackman is also a former member of the LMPD. The Louisville/Jefferson County Metropolitan Government is an additional appellant in the case.

In 2017, Jackman pled guilty to 12 charges. In 2018, the former Louisville Metro Police officer was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported in October 2023 that several Southern Baptist entities – the SBC Executive Committee, Lifeway Christian Resources and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – jointly filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case believing the ruling would have bearing on another abuse-related case in Kentucky in which the entities are named.

The brief was criticized both by some abuse survivor advocates in the SBC as well as by survivors themselves. Both groups issued statements in October expressing dismay at the brief’s having been filed.

SBC EC officers soon issued their own statement asserting that while no EC members had been made aware of the brief before its filing, they acknowledged that the case could directly impact the SBC’s “legal and fiduciary interests.”

The brief, the statement said, did not directly address the underlying litigation affecting the Killary case and isn’t a lobbying effort to restrict statutes of limitation. Rather, it urged the Kentucky Supreme Court to apply the current statute as it was originally drafted and applied in reference to non-offending third parties. 

The EC held a special called meeting Nov. 16 to discuss the brief and to review the process by which such legal decisions are made on behalf of the EC.

The SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF) also issued a statement in October, saying the group had no prior knowledge of the brief and that the ARITF “will continue to vigorously pursue reform measures to help the SBC better care for survivors and safeguard against abuse.”

Kentucky statute KRS 413.249 states, “A victim of childhood sexual assault or abuse shall not have a cause of action against a third party, unless the third party failed to act as a reasonable person or entity in complying with their duties to the victim. If a victim of childhood sexual assault or abuse has a cause of action under this section, the cause of action shall be commenced within the time period set forth in subsection (2) of this section.”

The “time period set forth” under the statute was updated from five to 10 years in 2017. Then, in 2021, the state legislature amended the statute again, allowing for suits against third parties and making the 2017 statute of limitations increase retroactive.

Killary filed her initial civil suit, which included the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government in May 2018.

The opinion, written by Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Laurance B. VanMeter, said, “Although the General Assembly possesses the power to enact statutes that act retroactively, such application cannot interfere with rights that have already vested. The affirmative defense of an expired statute of limitation is one such right.”

While Justice Christopher Shea Nickell agreed with the high court’s ruling, he understood Court of Appeals Judge Irv Maze’s desire to protect survivors of sexual abuse.

“While I share Judge Maze’s sympathy with ‘the General Assembly’s clearly expressed intention to expand the remedies available to victims of childhood sexual abuse,’ I also share his position that ‘the General Assembly was not authorized to revive causes of action where the applicable limitation period lapsed prior to enactment of the statutory amendment.’”

Nickell concludes the Supreme Court is right to, “…reverse the Court of Appeals’ remand of the claims against Metro as Metro enjoys sovereign immunity.”

With reporting from BP national correspondent Scott Barkley.