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Do Changes in the Law Impact Pending Cases?

Laws are constantly changing. Federal, state, and local legislation is added, amended, and revoked regularly. Do these changes in the law affect cases that are ongoing? It depends.

Bienvenu v. Defendant 1

Changing laws were at the forefront of a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The case of Bienvenu v. Defendant 1 involved sexual abuse allegedly committed by a priest in the 1970s. The defendants’ argument against the suit was that the abuse claims fell under the state’s one-year prescriptive period for delictual (tort) actions. In other words, the statute of limitations had expired for filing a claim for damages.

However, while the suit was ongoing, a major change in Louisiana law occurred. The state amended an existing statute so that anyone who was previously unable to file a child abuse claim due to the one-year limit would have three years from the date of the new law to file a claim. The trial court ruled that the change in Louisiana law was constitutional.

The defendants requested a supervisory review of that decision but were denied by the court of appeals. The issue of whether the retroactive element of the new law is constitutional was heard by the state’s supreme court after the defendants’ application for review.

The Supreme Court of Louisiana stated that once the statute of limitations has passed, the defendant has a constitutional right to use this as a defense. This decision was based on the state constitution’s due process rights. It reversed and vacated the trial court’s ruling.

The court also remanded the case to the trial court so that the plaintiffs could have a chance to raise additional arguments based on contra non valentem. Contra non valentem means that the clock does not start on the statute of limitations if the plaintiff was unable to take action for specific reasons, including the following:

  • A legal issue prevented the courts from taking action on a case
  • The plaintiff did not or could not have known that there was a cause for legal action

This list is not exhaustive; there may also be other reasons that could lead to a court tolling, or pausing, the statute of limitations.

Changing Laws and Ongoing Cases

In the Bienvenu case, the amended law was not applied because the Louisiana Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional. However, even when constitutionality is not an issue, retroactive application on decided cases and pending cases is rare. It is sometimes at the discretion of the court, while other laws include language about whether to apply them retroactively.