February 19, 2023

A bill to help sexual assault victims seek civil remedy heads to the House floor

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

A bill about seeking civil action against a perpetrator of sexual assault cleared the House Judiciary Committee Saturday.

HB 172, Abatement of Assault and Battery, would enable victims of sexual assault to continue a civil lawsuit if the alleged perpetrator of the assault should die before the court case reaches its conclusion. The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe. 

Expert witness Linda Hemphill, a Santa Fe attorney, said she represents childhood victims of sexual assault and a “loophole” in New Mexico statute enables district court judges to decide to abate a civil suit if the alleged perpetrator dies before the conclusion of the case. She said that during the pandemic, a school administrator already convicted and in prison was reportedly ill with COVID-19 and his victims were not sure if their civil case against him would proceed if he died. Hemphill said the man survived but it placed the victims in the uneasy position of having to pray for the health of the man who had sexually assaulted them.

“It takes tremendous courage to file a lawsuit. It’s even more devastating to bring a lawsuit, then have the accidental death of the perpetrator to lead to that case be dismissed,” Hemphill said.

Minority Floor Leader T. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, said “this makes complete sense.” State Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, D-Milan, asked about expanding the language to other court systems, such as municipal court.

“This is where the conflict is, in regards to those courts,” Romero said. “The rest of the statute is clear. These types of cases would carry on. It’s just in relation to the magistrate.”

The committee gave a do pass to the bill which heads next to the House floor.