Darlington case could lift limits on sex-abuse lawsuits

Banners celebrating the Darlington School's honor code are posted throughout its campus in Rome.  BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Following reports of decades-old sexual abuse at a northwest Georgia boarding school, state lawmakers will consider giving victims more time to sue their abusers – and the institutions that gave them cover.

Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) will announce Wednesday that he is introducing an expanded version of the Hidden Predator Act. Spencer was the lead sponsor of that 2015 law, which suspended the statute of limitations on civil suits against perpetrators of sexual abuse against minors.

Several former students of the Darlington School in Rome availed themselves of the Hidden Predator Act when they filed a lawsuit last month, days before the law’s expiration date. The former students – all men now in their 40s and 50s – allege that former teacher Roger Stifflemire sexually abused and harassed them in the 1970s and 1980s. Nine former students and the estate of another filed the suit; six to eight others are expected to join the case soon. Stifflemire, now 76 and living in Alabama, has not spoken publicly about the allegations.

Teacher Roger Stifflemire lived in Wilcox Hall, a boys' dorm at the Darlington School in Rome. Numerous former students now say he sexually abused them in Wilcox and at other locations.  BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The former students also sued Darlington, which did nothing to stop Stifflemire despite complaints from at least two students and the parent of another, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But the Hidden Predator Act did not suspend the statute of limitations on suits against institutions such as Darlington. It allowed lawsuits only against the perpetrators.

So after the Darlington case became public, Spencer drafted new legislation that would also permit suits against “culpable entities.”

House Bill 605 would also allow victims to file lawsuits over their abuse as children until they turn 38. Current law requires them to file by age 23.

It also would give the state attorney general the authority to sue predators and institutions in cases of “significant public importance.” Any money recovered through such suits would be split between the state and the victim.

Spencer’s bill has bipartisan support. Three Democrats and two Republicans have already signed on as co-sponsors.

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