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N.J. School Not Liable for Sexual Abuse Claims

(CN) - A woman who says she was raped several times by a marching band director in high school cannot sue the school because she missed the deadline, an appeals court ruled.

The New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division ruled Monday that the woman's lawsuit against her former high school missed the statute of limitations by roughly nine months after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to court documents, the woman, named as J.P., was first assaulted in 2000 as a high school junior at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J. She was a member of the school's marching band color guard, which her father directed.

During that time, the assistant marching band director, Gregory Smith, allegedly began making sexual jokes and calling J.P. "cutie" and "hon."

He later received permission to stay at the girl's house for a weekend, court records show. Smith allegedly pinned her to the floor and raped her that first night, after which he promised to marry her once she was 18 years old because her father approved of him.

Smith - who chaperoned band trips and competitions - stayed at the family's house several times that summer, during which he continued to assault her, according to J.P.'s complaint. He also allegedly sexually assaulted her during a color guard competition in Ohio.

The affair came to light only after J.P. fainted during a drum performance due to her pregnancy. J.P. admitted to her mother that Smith was the father, and J.P. later had an abortion.

J.P.'s father met with Smith and encouraged him to quit his job at the school, according to the original complaint. However, her father allegedly believed Smith when he said he had nothing to do with the pregnancy, and no police report was ever filed because police said the crime was not provable.

When she turned 18, J.P. was locked out of her family home, forcing her to live in her car, and she later developed a drug addiction to opioids, according to court records.

Smith finally confessed to the crime in 2013 while speaking on a recorded line with prosecutors, court records show, and only after that J.P.'s parents began to believe her.

In 2014, just before seeing a psychologist, J.P. filed a lawsuit against Smith, as well as Manahawkin, Ocean County, and Southern Regional High School.

The school argued it had no liability because it was not considered the plaintiff's "household" and that the lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations expired. J.P. countered that her father held marching band meetings at the family home, and therefore the "household" rule should have applied to the school.

The case went to trial in 2015, and a judge ruled in favor of the school, dismissing J.P.'s claims.

On review, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division concurred, ruling that, under New Jersey's Child Sexual Abuse Act (CSAA), lawsuits can be filed against institutions only if sexual abuse occurred "within the household." Institutions would be considered in loco parentis if they fail to protect the child from abuse.

However, the appeals court clarified that "within the household" means residential custody "that is more than fleeting and temporary in nature," which wasn't the case during the overnight trip to Ohio.

"Had the [New Jersey] legislature wished to include a public day school within the scope of the CSAA, it could every easily have used the terminology 'school or household,'" Judge Harry Carroll wrote in Monday's 31-page opinion.

Further, because the crime occurred more than 15 years ago, the statute of limitations has passed to sue the high school, Carroll wrote. The judge said the latest time J.P. could have filed a claim was 90 days after her psychologist diagnosed her post-traumatic stress disorder in July 2013.

"Plaintiff was undoubtedly aware of the abuse, Smith's identity as her abuser, and Smith's affiliation with the school when she became pregnant in 2000," Carroll wrote. "We conclude that, no later than July 2013, a reasonable person, possessing plaintiff's knowledge, could have discovered a basis for a cause of action with the exercise of ordinary diligence."

New Jersey's "within the household" statute has freed from liability a number of institutions, including other public schools.

However, other institutions have been considered passive abusers in litigation, such as a Camden diocese, which was found in 2013 to have played a part in the abuse of an 11-year-old by a Catholic priest.

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