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Mass. lawmakers to consider bill ending cap on damages for sexual abuse cases against nonprofits

 The office of the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a file photo.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPR
The office of the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a file photo.

This time of year Massachusetts lawmakers consider which bills will leave committees for a vote, which will not move forward, and which ones they want more time to consider.

The Joint Committee on the Judiciary has weighed in on several bills focused on the state's charitable immunity cap, which limits damages on some cases against nonprofit charities, including Catholic dioceses.

A bill that would amend the law so it does not apply to allegations of sexual and physical abuse of a child is still being considered. The committee gave itself until April 30, 2024 to consider House bill 1446. Rep. Michael S. Day, D- Stoneham, proposed the bill. He is also the House chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

Bills that would eliminate the cap on all lawsuits against charities did not move forward.

The charitable immunity law generally caps damages against nonprofit charities at $20,000. (Medical malpractice lawsuits against a nonprofit provider are capped at $100,000.) The law was designed to make sure that funds donated to charitable groups are spent on charitable work.

The $20,000 cap has made it difficult for people who allege sexual or physical abuse at a nonprofit, to get a lawyer. This includes cases against a Catholic diocese, the Boy Scouts of America or any other nonprofit.

Attorney Kim Dougherty, from the Justice Law Collaborative in Easton, represents victims of sexual abuse. She said amending the law would help bring justice to survivors of abuse.

"So that they can actually get meaningful reparations. It's the type of misconduct that has life altering effects on people, whether it be their employment, their relationships — everything gets turned upside down," she said.

Doherty said the judiciary committee is considering an amendment that would apply to both children and adult victims. NEPM has not confirmed that information. Doherty also said she wants the bill to remove the cap regardless of when the incident took place, so that it would apply to abuse that occurred in the past.

The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network opposes the bill. It said in a statement, "The law places no limit on damages for some types of cases and a cap on damages for other types. It balances nonprofits' charitable missions, their ability to operate, and an ability for plaintiffs to be compensated. Proposals to change the law should be evaluated by their impact on each of those goals."

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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