Where plaintiffs alleged that “church entities were negligent regarding the sexual abuse of minors” by a clergyman, and the allegations included claims of fraudulent concealment through an investigation that was actually a “whitewash,” dismissal based on the statute of limitations was reversed. Further, dismissal of plaintiffs’ claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress based on the entities disclosing plaintiffs’ names to the media was also reversed, as the Court concluded that defendants did have a duty to plaintiffs and the act of releasing plaintiffs’ names was sufficiently outrageous to sustain the tort claim.
In Doe v. Woodland Presbyterian, No. W2021-00353-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 1837455 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 3, 2022), the three plaintiffs were former members or attendees of Woodland Presbyterian Church, and all three alleged that former paster Stanford had sexually assaulted them in the 1990s when they were minors. Plaintiffs filed this suit in May 2020 against Stanford and several church entities, asserting claims for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. (The claims against Stanford were not at issue on appeal). Plaintiffs asserted, among other things, that church leaders knew Stanford was having young boys spend the night at his home, that defendants “failed to have policies in place that would prevent Pastor Stanford from being alone with minors on church-owned property,” and that defendants failed to have proper policies and training. Further, plaintiffs alleged that when the current pastor was contacted about the abuse allegations in June 2019, he stated that he believed the allegations because he had heard similar stories, and that the situation had been “fully investigated.” Plaintiffs asserted that they later learned that this alleged investigation was a ”whitewash” and attempt to cover up the abuse.
Defendants filed motions to dismiss, which the trial court granted, finding that the claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court noted that plaintiffs were minors when the abuse occurred, and that they “would have had at least a year from the time that they turned 18 to…pursue their claims,” but that such time period had long since passed. The trial court ruled that because plaintiffs knew what happened when they were minors, reported it then, and “knew what investigation was or was not done then,” the statute of limitations began to run when they turned 18. In addition, as to two defendants, the trial court found that it lacked personal jurisdiction over them. On appeal, the ruling regarding personal jurisdiction was affirmed, but dismissal based on the statute of limitations was reversed.