In the United States, a special law in New York State has paved the way for a wave of sexual assault lawsuits. In one year, no less than 2,500 proceedings have been initiated thanks to the Adult Survivors Act, a temporary legislation that allowed victims of sexual violence to file civil complaints for statute-barred criminal acts or misdemeanors for one year, until Thursday 23 November.

Some of these lawsuits have been widely publicized, putting American personalities such as rapper Puff Daddy, actor Jamie Foxx, Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose and New York City Mayor Eric Adams in the spotlight.

One of the first lawsuits filed under the Adult Survivors Act was against Donald Trump. In May 2023, a jury found him liable for sexually abusing writer E. Jean Carroll 27 years earlier, in 1996, in a fitting room. The former U.S. president, who denied the allegations, was ordered to pay $<> million in damages to the plaintiff. Until then, this former journalist of Elle magazine had not been able to file a complaint because the statute of limitations had passed.

This varies depending on the sex crime and can be up to 20 years.

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A precise count of Adult Survivors Act filings is not immediately available, but there have been at least 2,587 electronic filings in New York state courts, with some actions filed on behalf of several individuals, according to the AP.

'Pervasive and systemic' problem in prisons

While the most high-profile complaints following the Adult Survivors Act have targeted celebrities, others concern employers or hospitals, accused of not having done enough to put an end to sexual abuse committed by employees, including doctors. However, the vast majority of the lawsuits have been brought against the state, its counties, and New York City.

At issue are accusations of sexual violence in state and local prisons. More than half of the complaints were filed by women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted while serving a prison sentence.

The mass filings have attorney Adam Slater saying there is a "widespread and systemic" problem of assaults on inmates. His office said it has filed more than 1,200 complaints of abuse in state prisons and more than 470 complaints of abuse at the Rikers Island complex in New York City.

Among the victims, Alexandria Johnson spoke to the AP. A former drug prisoner who decided to sue New York State: "For so long, I didn't have a voice. And I thought it didn't matter. Who was I to be listened to?" Alexandria Johnson says she was repeatedly raped at Rikers Island in 2014 by four prison officers, and then at a New York City jail a year later while she was pregnant. This latest assault allegedly prevented her from carrying her pregnancy to term, the complaint details.

Alexandria Johnson filed a lawsuit against New York State for sexual assault while incarcerated. © AP

"I had big dreams, I could already see myself taking my baby to nursery. The hope that I will get out of prison, raise my son and get my life back on track. They took all of that away from me," she told AP. "I have to keep moving forward because it's important... There are so many stories, so many stories, and not just mine."

Johnson's accusations have been denied by New York City, which has spoken out through its lawyers and asked for the charges to be dismissed.

Towards a long-term sustainability of the system?

The Adult Survivors Act temporarily shattered the statute of limitations. But it has been in force again since Thursday 23 November, when this measure, which was intended to apply only for one year, ended.

Thus, in the days leading up to the expiry of this temporary law, the complainants rushed to file their application. Singer Axl Rose and actor Jamie Foxx were the targets of last-minute complaints on Wednesday.

After an avalanche of petitions filed in a year, advocates for victims of sexual assault are now calling for an extension of the Adult Survivors Act or a more permanent mechanism to hold abusers accountable.

Launched by Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, the Adult Survivors Act was born in the wake of a similar New York law for people who were abused as children. The Child Victims Act allowed them to file a complaint between August 2019 and August 2021, again without taking into account the statute of limitations. Nearly 11,000 people took legal action, many of them against the Catholic Church.

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The passage of the Adult Survivors Act was the result of a relentless struggle by groups that had been calling for the bill for years. Hochul also said the Child Victims Act had "forgotten" people who had experienced the same type of abuse as adults.

Safe Horizon, a New York-based group that supports victims of all forms of violence, is among the groups calling for an extension of the Adult Survivors Act. "The reason we fought so hard for this bill is that trauma takes time to come to the surface," says Liz Roberts, Executive Director of Safe Horizon.

A request supported by New York State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal. The Democrat sponsored the Senate version of the Adult Survivors Act. He now promises to initiate work with legislators to make the system permanent. "I will be advocating for an extension of this law, whether on a multi-year or permanent basis, to my colleagues in the Senate," he said, according to CNN's WRBG.

With AFP and AP

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