On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.
King, Baime and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
[242 NJSuper Page 197] This appeal presents questions of first impression. Plaintiff Susan Jones (Susan), independently and as guardian ad litem on behalf of her minor daughter, Jane Jones (Jane), instituted this action seeking compensatory and punitive damages against her parents, alleging that her father, Robert Jones (Robert), with the connivance of her mother, Sarah Jones (Sarah), sexually abused her over a protracted period of time. Plaintiff claimed that the birth of Jane, who is now 14 years of age, was the product of this incestuous relationship. The Law Division judge granted summary judgment and dismissed plaintiff's
independent claim, finding that the two-year statute of limitations had expired under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. The judge transferred Jane's support and tort claims to the Family Part and appointed a guardian ad litem to protect her interests.
At issue is whether the mental trauma suffered by plaintiff as the result of her father's alleged sexual misconduct serves to toll the statute of limitations. Closely intertwined with this question is whether the duress allegedly exerted by plaintiff's father had the effect of extending the limitations period.
We hold that factual questions were presented with respect to whether the psychological sequelae flowing from the alleged acts of sexual abuse were so severe as to constitute "insanity" under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21, thereby extending the period of limitations. We also conclude that genuine issues of material fact were raised as to whether defendants' allegedly coercive acts and threats were such as to deprive plaintiff of her free will and whether such duress was so compelling as to toll the statute of limitations.
Our recital of the facts is derived from the pleadings as well as the certifications and affidavits submitted by plaintiff in opposition to defendants' motion for summary judgment. Defendants Robert and Sarah are the natural parents of Susan. The infant plaintiff, Jane, was born on June 5, 1976. Susan alleges that Jane was the product of an incestuous relationship forced upon her by her father, Robert. It is undisputed that Jane suffers from a genetic disorder known as homocystinuria, which is characterized by mental deficiencies, visual impairment and musculoskeletal deformities. Susan contends that these handicaps were engendered by Jane's incestuous conception.
We need not recount at length the sordid facts relating to Robert's alleged sexual misconduct. According to Susan, her father commenced this course when she was approximately 11 years old. Initially, Robert allegedly found various excuses to
have Susan sleep in his bed with him. During this period, Robert is alleged to have perpetrated several acts of sexual abuse short of penetration, repeatedly impressing upon Susan the need for secrecy. Susan claims that the two ultimately engaged in sexual intercourse and continued this pattern on a regular basis "at least once a week."
According to Susan, she "lived in terror of Robert" throughout the years of abuse. Fearful of continuation of the incestuous relationship, Susan claims that she was even more panicked over the prospect of disclosure. "Racked with guilt and shame and terrified lest anyone learn of her secret," Susan asserts that she ultimately repressed all awareness of her incestuous relationship with her father.
Susan contends that Robert repeatedly threatened to kill her if she were to disclose his acts of abuse. According to Susan, her father regularly beat her in order to reinforce these threats. On several occasions, Robert allegedly attempted to suffocate her. Susan claims that these acts continued until the early months of 1983. In her certification, Susan alleged that she "still ha[s] nightmares" after which she awakes "sweating and shaking," thinking that her father "is coming after [her]."
According to Susan, the sexual abuse, which in its later stages is said to have taken the form of forcible rape, continued unabated over the years. In 1983, however, Susan began to receive counselling from Jean Heller, a psychiatric social worker at Riverview Hospital. Heller's notes for August 21, 1984 indicate that Susan, for the first time, revealed her father's alleged acts of sexual abuse. Susan claims that in September 1984 she "finally broke loose from the prison of mental and physical dependence" and was able to recount the details of her incestuous relationship with her father.
On October 4, 1984 Susan filed a criminal complaint, alleging Robert's sexual assaults. As a result, Robert was arrested and the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) removed Jane from ...