On Tuesday October 20, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments in the highly anticipated case of Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Legal scholars across the state have expressed great concern that a Supreme Court decision that upholds a right to sue in cases similar to Rice, where none previously existed, could open a flood gate of litigation which could affect a number of institutions across the state including the church.
A number of groups across the state have filed formal concerns with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court arguing that under the Pennsylvania Constitution, reviving time-barred claims can only be done by a state constitutional amendment – not by ordinary legislation and certainly not by judicial activism.
The case triggers a review of a recent Superior Court decision that cast aside years of judicial precedent and held that, in certain cases, a jury could decide matters involving how long people have to file a lawsuit after allegations of a crime. If the court decides not to uphold the current law, it opens the potential for hundreds of cases that previously would have been thrown out of courts due to time limitations, to move forward against institutions across Pennsylvania, inclusive of the Church. The financial impact would be severe and far-reaching.
Ms. Rice’s counsel presented arguments in an attempt to bring a lawsuit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in spite of the fact that the case falls outside of the current statute of limitations law. Rice’s attorneys argued that even though in many cases the allegations may be decades old, and witnesses and documents may be unavailable, or memories faded, dioceses and other institutions should be forced to defend themselves in court. Currently, defendants in most other lawsuits could not be forced to do so.
Diocese of Pittsburgh General Counsel Christopher G. Ponticello stated that he viewed the Superior Court ruling as, “a flawed decision that lacked a sound basis in law.” Rather, he said, “the opinion turned decades of jurisprudence and legal precedent on its head”. Ponticello went on to caution that, “the court should refrain from acting in a legislative capacity in an attempt to eradicate well-settled law.”
At this point it is unclear when the Supreme Court will release its decision in the case.