New California Law extends the statute of limitation for sexual harassment claims

January 19, 2024
Allegations of sexual assault

By Anuradha Gandhi and Isha Sharma

Introduction:

In a recent and attention-grabbing development, renowned actor Vin Diesel has found himself embroiled in controversy as his former assistant, Astra Jonasson has come forward with allegations of sexual assault during her tenure with him in the year 2010.

The grave nature of these allegations has brought the spotlight on the actor, prompting discussions about the workplace misconduct and accountability within the entertainment industry, especially in the post #MeToo era.

Facts of the Case:

The accusations came to light through a lawsuit filed on December 21, 2023 by Astra Jonasson in Los Angeles, State of California.

The lawsuit asserts that the alleged incident transpired during the filming of Fast Five in 2010 when Jonasson was working as an assistant under Vin Diesel.[1]

She claims that the actor forced himself onto her in a hotel suite in Atlanta. According to the lawsuit, she attempted to leave the room after being forced onto Diesel’s bed, but the actor pursued her, groped her and forcibly kissed her as she pleaded him to stop, the complaint states, continuing that he “molested her body”.

Following the alleged assault, she was terminated within hours, as detailed in the lawsuit.

“The message was clear. Ms. Jonasson was fired for courageously resisting Vin Diesel’s sexual assault, Vin Diesel would be protected, and his sexual assault covered up,” the lawsuit states.

Legal Action taken by Vin Diesel:

Jonasson is pursuing legal action against the actor, his production company and his sister- who serves as the President of One Race Productions-alleging gender based discrimination, a hostile working environment, retaliation and wrongful termination.[2]

The attorney representing Jonasson, emphasized in a statement that the lawsuit is a comprehensive effort to hold Vin Diesel and those complicit in “allowing and covering up his sexual assault” accountable for their egregious actions. The legal actions aims not only to address the specific actions of Diesel but also to hold accountable those who permitted and allegedly concealed the incident. Furthermore, the attorney stressed on the importance of creating an environment where survivors feel empowered to speak out, fostering lasting change in workplace dynamics.

“We hope Ms Jonasson’s courageous decision to come forward helps create lasting change and empowers other survivors,” the attorney said.

Contentions by the Respondent (Vin Diesel):

On the other hand, the attorney representing Vin Diesel, issued a categorical denial of the entire claim in a statement reported by the trade outlet Variety.

“Let me be very clear: Vin Diesel categorically denies this claim in its entirety. This is the first he has ever heard about this more than 13-year-old claim made by a purportedly 9-day employee. There is clear evidence which completely refutes these outlandish allegations.”

Complainant’s fear of retaliation, a fear of speaking out stemmed from concerns about potential ostracization from an industry had displayed a consistent historical pattern of shielding powerful men and suppressing survivors of sexual harassment. However, the recent empowering movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up initiated a global wave of revelations and have empowered her to break her silence and share her experience.

California Legal Standpoint:

Beyond the actor finding himself entangled in controversy, a pressing question arises: Can legal actions be pursued for a legal assault that transpired many years ago?

This prompts a broader societal reflection on the statute of limitations, the empowerment of survivors, and the ongoing efforts to hold individuals accountable for past transgressions.

California has recently redefined its statute of limitations for sexual assault claims, influenced significantly by the #MeToo Movement. Fueled by the increasing number of survivors coming forward, California enacted a new law: Sexual Abuse and Cover Up Accountability Act also known as Assembly Bill 2777 (AB 2777) on January 01, 2023.

However, originally the statute of limitations for bringing a civil claim for sexual assault in California depends on the survivor’s age at the time of the assault. For sexual assaults occurring on or after victim’s 18th birthday, California law allows survivors to file a legal claim:

• Within 10 years from the date of the last act, attempted act, or assault within the intent to commit an act, of sexual assault against the plaintiff

OR

• Within 3 years from the date of discovery of injury or illness resulting from an act, attempted act or assault with the intent to commit an act of sexual assault against the plaintiff.

[A civil claim seeks damages for the impact of the assault, encompassing medical costs, pain and suffering, lost income and other losses.]

The newly enacted legislation, AB 2777 permits survivors to claim damages suffered as a result of a sexual assault that transpired on or after January 01, 2009, that would have otherwise been barred solely because the applicable statute of limitations has or had expired. Such claims have been revived and officially be eligible to be brought in civil suit until December 31, 2026.[3]

In addition, AB 2777 has also created a one-year revival window which permit survivors to seek claims and recover damages suffered as a result of sexual assault, involving Cover-ups that would otherwise be barred, before January 01, 2023, because the applicable statute of limitations has or had expired. That is to say, survivors may bring these claims between January 01, 2023 and December 31, 2023.

[“Cover up” is defined under this law as a concerted effort to hide evidence relating to a sexual assault that incentivizes individuals to remain silent or prevents information relating to a sexual assault from becoming public or being disclosed to the plaintiff, including, but not limited to, the use of nondisclosure agreements or confidentiality agreements.]

Eligibility for cover-up claim under the one-year lookback window provision:

• The plaintiff was sexually assaulted
• One or more entities are legally responsible for damages arising out of the sexual assault
• The entity or entities, including, but not limited to, their officers, directors, representatives, employees, or agents, engaged in a cover up or attempted a cover up of a previous instance or allegations of sexual assault by an alleged perpetrator of such abuse.[4]

Exceptions:

AB 2777 revives any related claims, including but not limited to, wrongful termination and sexual harassment, arising out of the sexual assault that is the basis for a claim. But it does not revive either of the following claims:

• A claim that has been litigated to finality in a court of competent jurisdiction before January 01, 2023
• A claim that has been compromised by a written settlement agreement between the parties entered into before January 01, 2023

POSH Law in India:

In India, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 also known as POSH law specifically addresses issues pertaining to sexual harassment.

However, POSH law imposes limitations on the filing of complaints. In accordance with the provision of Section 9 of the POSH Act, any aggrieved woman may make, in writing, a complaint of sexual harassment at workplace to the Internal Committee or the Local Committee, within a period of three months from the date of incident and in case of a series of incidents, within a period of three months from the date of last incident.[5]

The Committee, as the case may be, for the reasons in writing, extend the time limit not exceeding three months, if it is satisfied that the circumstances were such which prevented the woman from filing a complaint within the said period.

However, a noteworthy case X vs. District Magistrate (South) and Another, 2019[6] saw the court ruling on a complaint filed with a Local Committee beyond a period of three month from the date of last incident of sexual harassment (i.e., beyond the prescribed limitation period under Section 9). The court held that despite the complaint being filed beyond the specified timeframe, the Local Committee should conduct an inquiry and issue a reasoned an articulate order.

Further, as far as criminal complaint is concerned, there is a period of limitation prescribed under Indian law, which varies for different kinds of offences.

After the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 came into place, several new offences were recognized and incorporated into the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 which included: Section 354A (sexual harassment; Section 354B (assault or criminal force with intent to disrobe women); Section 354C (Voyeurism), Section 354D (stalking), etc. By way of this amendment, the limitation period for taking cognizance for an offence under any of Sections 354A, 354C, 354D or 509 IPC has been made three years under the IPC.[7]

[1] https://time.com/6550086/vin-diesel-sexual-battery-accusation-former-assistant-lawsuit/
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2023/dec/21/vin-diesel-sexual-battery-lawsuit-former-assistant
[3] https://www.lcwlegal.com/news/ab-2777-extends-the-statute-of-limitations-for-civil-actions-alleging-sexual-assault-occurring-on-or-after-a-victims-18th-birthday/
[4] https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=340.16.&highlight=true&lawCode=CCP&keyword=sexual
[5] https://lddashboard.legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A2013-14.pdf
[6] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/13324529/#:~:text=Having%20heard%20the%20learned%20counsel,Harassment%20of%20Women%20at%20Workplace%20(
[7] https://www.barandbench.com/columns/me-too-limitation-periods-for-filing-complaints-myths-and-realities

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