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    Abused kids can sue parents, court says

    Parents aren't immune from lawsuits filed by their children if they have sexually abused them, Florida's Supreme Court says.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001

    In the interest of "family harmony," children in Florida have long been barred from suing their parents in nearly all cases.

    But that changed Thursday when the Florida Supreme Court said a 26-year-old Miami-Dade County man can sue the adoptive father who he says sexually abused him.

    "It's a great decision, and it opens the doors of the court to sexually abused children to sue their parents," said David C. Rash, attorney for the son. "It's a tremendous moral victory for these kids."

    Even though parents normally are immune from lawsuits filed by their children, the court said immunity doesn't make sense when parents sexually abuse children.

    "The immunity can have no justification in such cases of intentional and malicious sexual abuse, for in those cases the inescapable conclusion is that the family fabric has already been tragically disrupted by the serious misconduct alleged," the court said in a 6-1 decision written by Justice Harry Lee Anstead.

    Mabel Bexley, executive director of the Spring, a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, had not seen the decision but said, "It sounds like a significant gain for child victims."

    The decision opens the doors of civil courts to child-vs.-parent disputes, but it's a narrow opening. Thursday's decision addresses only children who sue because of "intentional sexual abuse perpetrated by a parent," not those who suffer other kinds of harm.

    To clarify its point, the court cited a similar North Carolina Supreme Court decision that said, "In no way do we intend to indicate that reasonable parental decisions concerning children should be reviewed in the courts of this state."

    The father in the Miami-Dade case was a foster parent who took the 13-year-old boy into his North Miami Beach home in 1988 and later adopted him. Four years ago, the son filed a civil lawsuit against the father, claiming repeated sexual abuse.

    The trial court in Miami-Dade County dismissed the case, citing the doctrine of parental immunity.

    A state appeals court reversed that decision and provided an overview of the parental immunity concept, which has appeared in U.S. court decisions for more than a century.

    Eleven states have abandoned the doctrine altogether, and others, including Florida, have created exceptions to it. Florida previously has recognized the right of children to sue parents in certain cases in which an accident has occurred and the child is seeking to make an insurance claim.

    The Florida court's decision means the son in this case now has the chance to pursue the lawsuit against the father. Police investigated the allegations, but authorities never filed criminal charges, Rash said.

    Why would anyone need to sue his parents in such a case? Just as you might sue a neighbor who punches you in the nose and use the monetary damages to pay for medical expenses, a sexual abuse victim might sue and recover money for therapy, Rash said. He said few victims would recover substantial sums from abusive parents.

    Justices Anstead, Leander Shaw, Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Major Harding agreed that the parental immunity doctrine should not extend to sexual abuse lawsuits.The decision noted that some people could file false claims, but it said the judicial process already is prepared to address that.

    Chief Justice Charles Wells was the lone dissenter, saying, "I am concerned that this decision will be used to foster litigation involving children in instances in which the real battle is between the two parents."

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