Who Can File a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit?
As a victim of sexual abuse or assault, you have a right to take legal action against the perpetrator and anyone else liable for what happened to you. The victim is not the only person who can file this type of lawsuit.
Parents and guardians of minor victims can also sue on behalf of the abused child. Other family members or witnesses to an assault may also sue, citing emotional harm or loss of consortium in the case of a victim’s partner.
Criminal vs. Civil Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
Sexual abuse and assault are crimes. The state is responsible for prosecuting perpetrators. These criminal cases aim to bring the defendant to justice and punish them, with jail time and monetary fines.
What a criminal case does not usually provide is compensation for the victim. After a criminal trial is over, the victim or their family may start a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator. Recovering damages in the civil case is easier if the defendant was found guilty in the criminal trial.
Even if the person was not convicted in the trial, you could still file a civil sexual abuse lawsuit to recover damages. It is possible to make a successful case for liability because you only have to show that it is more likely that they perpetrated the crime than not. The civil lawsuit burden of proof is lower than in a criminal trial, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Why Should I File a Sexual Abuse or Assault Lawsuit?
Deciding to file a lawsuit over sexual abuse means weighing the pros and cons. The main reason many people never file is that they don’t realize it is an option. Another downside to starting a lawsuit is that it means reliving a traumatic event or period of time. It can be difficult to open up and talk about what happened. There are also significant benefits to taking this legal action:
- A lawsuit may lead to compensation to help you cover mental health and physical health costs resulting from the abuse.
- This is your one option for exposing the perpetrator and holding them accountable for their actions.
- It also gives you the chance to hold institutions accountable—for instance, a church or a school that failed to protect your child.
- By holding these people accountable, you get a valuable sense of closure and vindication.
- Perhaps most importantly, by exposing the perpetrator, you may prevent the same thing from happening to someone else.
Who Is Liable in a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit?
The most obvious person to sue in a sexual abuse lawsuit is the perpetrator, or perpetrators if there was more than one. Depending on the situation, your lawyer may be able to pinpoint more individuals or organizations liable for what happened to you or your child. These are just a few examples:
- A business. A company or business may be liable for an assault under premises liability. For instance, if someone attacked you at a bar or nightclub, the owner could be liable for breaching the duty to take reasonable measures to maintain a safe environment.
- An organization responsible for children. A school, church, athletic association, or similar group could be liable for a child’s abuse for failing to protect them. The organization is responsible for keeping kids safe and hiring pre-screened adults.
- An employer. If you suffered abuse or assault at work, your employer may be responsible for not providing a reasonably safe work environment.
- Healthcare workers or organizations. As an example, if an older adult in a nursing home is a victim of sexual abuse, that worker is liable. The institution may also be liable.
How Will My Lawyer Prove the Assault or Abuse in a Lawsuit?
In any tort lawsuit, the lawyer must show that someone is negligent or committed an intentional wrong. If you are suing the perpetrator, your lawyer will aim to show that they intentionally harmed you. If suing a third party, the charge will be negligence.
In the case of the perpetrator, you must be able to show that a preponderance of the evidence proves liability. In other words, if the jury believes there is more than a 50% chance the perpetrator assaulted you, you have proven liability. Your lawyer will use evidence, your own account, and witness accounts to make this case.
When suing a third party for negligence, your lawyer must show that they had a duty to act in a reasonable manner and that they breached the duty. That breach must have resulted in harm and damages. For instance, a childcare facility has an obligation to screen employees. If they did not screen a new hire, and that person abused your child resulting in damages, they are negligent and liable.
What Can I Recover in Damages?
The amount of damages you may recover in a civil sexual abuse lawsuit depends on multiple factors. Your lawyer can give you a reasonable estimate. There are three possible types of damages you may receive, depending on state laws:
- Nominal damages. If you did not suffer any serious physical harm, you might receive a small amount of compensation in the form of nominal damages.
- Compensatory damages. If you did suffer harm, you might recover compensatory damages for medical care and emotional pain and suffering.
- Punitive damages. Perpetrators of sexual crimes may have to pay punitive damages, which are awarded in cases in which the defendant is found to have committed intentional harm. It is a punishment.
What is the Statute of Limitations for Civil Sexual Abuse Lawsuits?
States set limits on when you can file personal injury civil lawsuits, and some have limits specifically for assault or abuse. These statutes of limitation generally range from one to six years from the incident. Sexual abuse and assault cases are complicated, though, and there are often exceptions.
For example, some states allow adult victims of childhood sexual abuse to file within the statute of limitations beginning when they remember the assaults. This is a variation of the discovery rule. Many victims suppress memories until later in life.
Some states also have what is called a “lookback window.” This is a designated period of time, usually a year, during which victims of past abuse may file lawsuits. The statute of limitations may vary significantly depending on the situation. A lawyer can best determine the limit in your case.
What Are the Steps in a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit?
If you want to file a lawsuit against a perpetrator or third party for sexual assault or abuse, you will go through several steps after finding and hiring a lawyer:
This formally begins the lawsuit and identifies and notifies the defendants. At this point, information becomes part of the public record.
- Service of process.
Your lawyer will then send a summons to the perpetrator through a process server.
During the discovery period, each side in the case gathers evidence to build a case or disprove guilt or negligence. Discovery also includes depositions to interview opposing witnesses and parties, document subpoenas, and psychiatric evaluations, if necessary.
- Summary judgment.
If the evidence is clear and in your favor, your lawyer can request that the court make a judgment without trial.
- Settlement negotiations.
Another option to avoid trial is to negotiate with the defendants to get a settlement. This may or may not be private.
If you go to trial, your lawyer will advocate for you, showing evidence and bringing in expert and witness testimony to show the defendant is guilty or negligent. The other side will try to deny any negligence.
- Verdict and award.
Either a judge or a jury will determine negligence and liability. If they find in your favor, they will also determine damages owed. Keep in mind that the defendants can take further actions to try to avoid paying damages, such as seeking reductions or an appeal.
Filing a sexual abuse lawsuit is a big step, and it is not easy to take or to go through after experiencing something so traumatic. The right lawyer can make all the difference, helping you feel comfortable through this challenging process and giving you the best chance of success.