Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Topic /161
Hearndon v. Graham

Citation. 767 So. 2d 1179,2000 Fla.25 Fla. L. Weekly S 682

Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff brought a complaint alleging that she was the victim of sexual abuse that caused her to suffer from traumatic amnesia.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The delayed discovery doctrine generally provides that a cause of action does not accrue until the plaintiff either knows or reasonably should know of the tortious act giving rise to the cause of action.

Facts. Paula Hearndon, plaintiff, filed a complaint in 1991 against Kenneth Graham for injuries that resulted from sexual abuses he allegedly committed beginning in 1968 and continuing until 1975. The complaint was dismissed without prejudice on the grounds that the action was barred by the four-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff argued that the court should apply the doctrine of delayed discovery of an injury to toll the statute of limitations because she suffered from traumatic amnesia. The trial court dismissed the complaint, and the district court affirmed, reasoning that the Legislature provided explicit tolling provisions that did not include delayed discovery due to lack of memory.

Issue. Should the delayed discovery doctrine by applied to cases of traumatic amnesia caused by childhood sexual abuse?

Held. The delayed discovery doctrine is applicable to accrue the statute of limitations.
Petitioner claims that she suffered sexual abuse that caused her to suppress or lose her memory. This Court does not pass on the merits of whether she actually lost and then regained her memory or the reliability of any psychological techniques that may have been employed in arousing her memory.

The court recognized credible medical support that many victims of childhood sexual abuse develop amnesia because of the horrible nature of the abuse. This Court recognizes that this is a disputed area of psychological study.

The delayed discovery doctrine generally provides that a cause of action does not accrue until the plaintiff either knows or reasonably should know of the tortious act giving rise to the cause of action. A statute of limitations runs from the time the cause of action accrues, which is generally determined by the date when the last element constituting the cause of action occurs. Tolling of the limitation would interrupt the running thereof subsequent to accrual. While the accrual pertains to the existence of a cause of action which then trigger the running of a statute of limitations, tolling focuses directly on limitation periods and interrupting the running thereof. Both accrual and tolling may be employed to postpone the running of the statute of limitations.

The legislature limited the justification for tolling limitation periods to the exclusion of delayed discovery due to loss of memory, but did not likewise limit the circumstances under which accrual may have been delayed. Numerous jurisdictions apply the delayed discovery doctrine to cases alleging childhood sexual abuse followed by loss of memory. The application of the doctrine represents both the majority rule and the modern trend. First, it is widely recognized that the resultant shock and confusion may lead a child to deny or suppress such abuse. Second, the doctrine is well established when applied, and is fair given the nature of the alleged tortious conduct and its effect on victims. This Court remands the case, but does not pass on the factual development of the issue to be addressed at trial.

Discussion. This Court finds that the doctrine of delayed discovery is applicable in cases of traumatic amnesia caused by abuse to accrue the statute of limitations.