Michigan bills would give sexual assault survivors more time to file lawsuits

Sex assaults survivors shouldn’t have to battle schools like Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan over the time it took them to come forward — that’s the idea behind a package of bipartisan bills announced in Lansing on Wednesday.

And it's why Sydney Bakos is speaking out.

Though anonymously referred to as Jane Doe 18 in a federal lawsuit against EMU, Bakos said she finally felt ready to come forward about her 2016 rape at a news conference Wednesday alongside state Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, state Rep. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, and state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, as she welcomed the introduction of House bills 5962-5964 to extend the statute of limitations for civil recourse for survivors of sexual assault.

“Sexual assault has psychological impacts that often delays a victim’s readiness to report the crime,” she said at the podium. “This is what happened to me. I needed time to heal before I was able to report the assault.”

Under the proposed legislation, individuals would have until their 48th birthday, 10 years after the assault, or seven years after discovering their abuse, whatever is latest, to make a claim, according to a news release.

Sydney Bakos, who is suing Eastern Michigan University, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, March 23 in Lansing,
Sydney Bakos, who is suing Eastern Michigan University, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, March 23 in Lansing,

There would be no time limit if a criminal conviction took place, groups like agencies and universities would no longer need to get written notice ahead of an individual’s legal filing and there would be a two-year revival period so survivors with claims prior to the legislation have a second shot at filing.

They come as Brixie has cosponsored house bill 4307, sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, to remove the immunity defense for governmental entities in sexual assault cases.

The 24 individuals suing EMU say the school looked the other way on sexual assaults and created a dangerous atmosphere, which the school denies. And members of the group like Bakos say they didn’t understand until later — when news of assaults at the school started pouring out — the harm the school had done. The school has argued several cases in the matter are past the statute of limitations, but both parties are now in mediation.

The individuals are still suing the school because they argue a claim of fraudulent concealment extends their time frame but the statute of limitations is normally three years, said an attorney for the women, Megan Bonanni of the Royal Oak-based Pitt McGehee law firm.

Survivors who don’t have such an extension are “forced to bring their cases prematurely” if they are able, Bonanni said.

The current law is “archaic,” Brixie said, and she was motivated to act after the abuses seen in the Larry Nassar case at MSU and seeing friends and neighbors suffer because of “Michigan laws that harbor abusers.”

She cited data from the nonprofit Child USA that shows the average age for childhood survivors to report abuse is age 52. For child survivors, the current law allows them only until age 28 to file a claim.

“The Legislature should not be dictating which survivors have access to justice,” she said.

And Damoose said the bills aren’t an attack on the state’s “great institutions,” but rather “a sad recognition of the fact that hidden amongst them had been a few terrible predators whose sins must be brought into the light.”

Bakos said her assault made her feel unlovable, confused, distrustful and “the worst type of loneliness I would never want to put on anyone.”

Bakos, in her lawsuit, reports a gang rape by two members of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity and being forced into use of her mouth for an oral sexual assault by one of them later. That man became a Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputy and she will face off with him in criminal court, too, while the other man also faces criminal charges.

Bakos called on the Michigan Legislature to pass the bills so sister survivors ready to come forward with civil claims could do so.

Isabelle Brourman, among eight individuals suing U-M over their reports of sexual misconduct by music lecturer Bruce Conforth, also spoke at the news conference Wednesday. She detailed being raped numerous times despite a classmate coming forward with a complaint on Conforth previously. The school has said Conforth admitted to allegations of sexual misconduct and the school was prepared to initiate dismissal proceedings but he resigned.

But Brourman detailed a frustrating back and forth as she has tried to get justice and aid future survivors

Isabelle Brourman, who is suing the University of Michigan, speaks at a March 23 news conference in Lansing.
Isabelle Brourman, who is suing the University of Michigan, speaks at a March 23 news conference in Lansing.

“The process of getting justice is incredibly emotionally draining,” she said. “While survivors tried to do the hard work of trying to heal. We are also being burdened with the race against time, facing retraumatization and the constant reopening of traumatic wounds before we are emotionally and physically fit to do so.”

Hertel spoke to previous attempts to extend the statute, and how survivors had to keep telling their stories and suffer victim-blaming, and yet some survivors were still left out.

Legislators can stand with the survivors, or keep providing perpetrators rocks to hide behind, he said. The goal is to “create an environment in which survivors can feel seen and heard when sharing their stories and have no limits to seek justice.”

More: Judge prohibits Delta Tau Delta from throwing parties at EMU

More: Lone man suing EMU in sex assaults speaks out

Of this, Brourman said: “Michigan law should not continue to be amended each time a new story comes out. … Instead, let's fix it once and for all."

Neither EMU nor U-M immediately responded to requests for comment Wednesday.

Darcie Moran is a breaking news reporter and podcaster for the Detroit Free Press. She has served as an investigative reporter and covered justice issues, crime, protests, wildfires and government affairs. Contact Moran: dmoran@freepress.com. Twitter: @darciegmoran.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan lawmakers seek to broaden statute of limitations in sex cases