Elmo Walks Free: The Third Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Sexual Abuse Allegations Against the Man who Voiced Sesame Street’s Elmo

Personal injury attorneys are constantly warning clients about strict time limits on filing claims. It is in television advertisements, engagement agreements, and it is almost always discussed during the initial consultation. But sometimes a good example is the best way to show the disastrous effects of not taking swift action.

We all remember our childhood friends from the most famous street in America – Sesame Street. It captivated us as children, from the catchy jingle and furry puppets to the silly adults who acted alongside the puppets. The characters were larger than life: Oscar the Grouch, Snuffleupagus, Bert and Ernie, and many more. None, however, were more popular in recent years than Elmo. This may be in large part due to the emergence of the “Tickle Me Elmo” doll, which swept the country in the mid-90’s and quickly became an obsession for many. The doll would giggle when tickled.

Kevin Clash is the man who served as the voice of Elmo. For years, he and his family lived outside Baltimore and enjoyed the popularity brought by the Elmo sensation. However, in 2013, a young man named Sheldon Stephens brought a lawsuit against the acclaimed puppeteer, alleging Clash sexually abused him while he was a minor.

The alleged abuse occurred in 2004, while Stephens was 16. He filed 9 years later, claiming that Clash was interested in a sexual relationship from the beginning and that they had engaged in a “pattern of sexual activity . . . over a period of years.” Stephens claimed that he “did not become aware that he had suffered adverse psychological and emotional effects” until many years later when he was an adult. The claims were based on violations of both federal and state law.

Statutes of Limitations

The lower District Court found that Stephens was a Pennsylvania resident when the alleged sexual abuse occurred, but all abuse took place in New York. Under New York’s statute of limitations, a sexual abuse victim would have had just one year to file the case. But when the victim is a minor, the law “tolls” the statute of limitations. In other words, if the victim is a minor, the limitation period does not begin until he or she turns 18. Then the clock starts ticking.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania has a two-year statute of limitations. Despite the fact that Pennsylvania has an additional, extended 12-year limitation period for childhood sexual abuse, the Appellate Court upheld the District Court’s finding that this did not act as a tolling statute, because it determined that the extended limitation period did not apply to the precise claim brought by the plaintiff.

Instead, the plaintiff had only 2 years to file his claim after turning 18. Therefore, the Court dismissed Stephens’ claims.

The Lesson

Each state sets certain time limits on when people can bring lawsuits. These statutes vary widely depending on the nature of the action. For instance, a state may limit bringing an action against a municipality to just one year, but it may permit lawsuits against healthcare providers for up to two years. Personal injury attorneys must stay up to date on the most recent changes to such statutes, as they are almost always strictly applied. This case is a prime example of this strict application.

Those who are injured, regardless of where or how, should immediately contact a personal injury attorney who can assess their case to determine which statute of limitations applies and ensure the case can be timely filed. This is advisable even if there is no initial desire to file a lawsuit. The Romero Law Firm has experienced attorneys who can assess federal and state claims throughout Florida.

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