Bill advanced to allow child abuse claims against schools, local governments

Lawmakers gave first-round approval April 9 to a proposal that would allow political subdivisions to be sued for harm caused to a child by sexual or other abuse under certain circumstances.

Sen. Justin Wayne
Sen. Justin Wayne

LB25, as originally introduced by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne last session, would establish a process for awarding punitive damages in civil actions.

Wayne offered an amendment to a pending Judiciary Committee amendment during general file debate April 9 that gutted the bill and instead would allow civil claims involving child sexual or other abuse under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act.

Claims could be filed if the harm done is a “proximate result” of a political subdivision’s failure to exercise reasonable control over an employee or failure to protect a person in their care, custody or control from harm by a non-employee.

The existing act has a cap of $1 million, Wayne said, and claims could not be made against the state. Political subdivisions would be liable only if a victim can demonstrate that “reasonable care” was not taken to protect a child from abuse by an employee or an outside entity while in the political subdivision’s care — such as on a field trip, he said.

“Every parent is sending their kid to school with the assumption that they’re going to be ok … but somehow this reasonable care, when it comes to sexual assault, we feel schools can’t meet that standard?” Wayne said.

North Platte Sen. Mike Jacobson opposed the amendment, saying he would prefer a measure that was limited only to schools or with a smaller cap on damages. He said attorneys for victims pursue entities that they believe will provide the most monetary gain for their clients and that are motivated to settle lawsuits.

“One thing that we always need to keep in mind is, whenever an attorney [is] representing a client — who’s suing on their behalf — they’re looking for the deep pockets,” Jacobson said.

Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln pushed back on that characterization, saying attorneys are not “ambulance chasers” but are seeking to help individuals who have been hurt.

“The reality of the situation is [that] the individuals who are doing this kind of work, the vast majority of the time, are doing so to protect and to help individuals who have been wronged, and to try to prevent that behavior in the future by virtue of holding the perpetrator accountable monetarily,” Dungan said.

Speaking in support of the bill, Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman said lawmakers should be more concerned with protecting children than protecting schools from financial liability. Schools that are doing what’s necessary to keep children safe “have nothing to fear” from the proposal, he said.

“This is for those schools who may not be doing things right,” Erdman said. “This is trying to protect those children who are in a situation that is unacceptable.”

Senators voted 32-15 to adopt Wayne’s amendment and 27-12 to adopt the committee amendment. They then advanced LB25 to select file on a 26-14 vote.

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