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Doe v. Maskell

    Brief Fact Summary. The Circuit Court for Baltimore City (Maryland) granted summary judgment to school officials on the Plaintiffs’ claims of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Plaintiffs sought review.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The discovery rule holds that a cause of action accrues when plaintiff knew or should have known that actionable harm has been done to him.

    Facts. Two young women, Doe and Roe, (Plaintiffs) attended a Baltimore City parochial school between 1967 and 1971. During this period, they allege, they were repeatedly subjected to a variety of abuse, sexual, physical and psychological. Plaintiffs, citing “repression”, claimed they did not begin to become consciously aware of the abuse until 1982. The statute of limitations barred any action for recovery after a period of three years beyond the Plaintiffs’ eighteenth birthdays. Defendants contended they were thus barred from bringing the action. The trial court agreed, and granted summary judgment.

    Issue. Does the discovery rule in conjunction with the time-bar of the statute of limitations on civil actions apply to cases of allegedly repressed and recovered memories?

    Held. Yes. The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court with costs. The court framed the issue in terms of ascertaining whether repression existed as a phenomenon separate and apart from the normal process of forgetting. The court concluded there was no way to distinguish the two processes scientifically, and thus they should be treated the same legally.

    Discussion. The broader, if tangential, issue presented in Doe v. Maskell was that of “repressed memory” syndrome, about which experts did not agree. Two schools of thought emerged: the scientific and the therapeutic. The latter gave greater credence to the alleged phenomenon. The former, not surprisingly, took the empirical approach and tended to deny its existence due to the absence of objective data.

    Freud described repression as a mechanism that operates unconsciously to make the memory of painful or threatening events inaccessible to the conscious mind. The court adopted the definition of a contemporary expert, David S. Holmes, who characterized the repression as having three essential elements: 1) there is a selective forgetting of painful recollections; 2) this process is not voluntary; 3) and that such memories are not lost but stored in the subconscious and may be retrieved if the attendant anxiety is absent.

    The discussion is largely academic for purposes of this discussion, except the issue raises the question, addressed by the court, of how the alleged phenomenon applies with respect to statutes of limitation. As noted, the court took the more empirical view, stating, “[t]he studies purporting to validate repression theory are justly criticized as unscientific, unrepresentative, and thus not valid for these puroses.


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