If you have been the victim of sex abuse or a sexual assault you have the right to file a civil lawsuit against your abuser (or the organization that enabled the abuse) and get justice with financial compensation. Almost any type of criminal sexual conduct or unwanted sexual contact can form the basis for a sexual abuse or sexual assault lawsuit. The type of conduct commonly seen in sex abuse lawsuits includes:
- Sexual abuse of child
- Sexual batter (groping or unwanted sexual touching)
- Indecent exposure
- Sexual assault or groping by healthcare professional
Sexual assault victims can file a civil lawsuit regardless of whether the defendant has been convicted of a crime (or even charged with a crime).
Victims of sexual abuse and assault who file a successful lawsuit can get significant financial compensation. Compensation is allowed for things such as: medical bills (including mental health counseling), lost wages or income, and pain & suffering (including mental anguish resulting from the abuse).
Who Can File a Sexual Abuse or Assault Lawsuit?
Anyone who has been the victim of a sexual assault or abuse can file a civil lawsuit for sexual battery as long as the assault or abuse involved some type of unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature. The individual victim of the assault or abuse is the plaintiff. In some cases, the spouse of the victim can also be a plaintiff and bring a separate claim for loss of companionship (loss of consortium).
Can You Sue Someone Other than the Abuser in a Sexual Assault Lawsuit?
The most obvious defendant in any sex abuse lawsuit is always the individual who committed the abuse or assault. In many circumstances, however, suing the abuser might be pointless because they may not have enough money to pay for any damages awarded in the lawsuit. For cases involving childhood sexual abuse, the abuser may no longer be alive.
Fortunately, the abuser is not the only potential defendant in a sex abuse lawsuit. If the sexual abuse or assault happens at a school, church, hospital, or other facility or institution, that institution or school can potentially be liable for civil damages. This is particularly true if the abuser was an employee of the school, church, hospital, or facility.
EXAMPLE: While Jane was a student at Acme Private School she was sexually abused by her school guidance counselor John. Jane can bring a sexual abuse lawsuit against both John and Acme Private School.
Almost any third party (other than the abuser) can be held liable in a sexual assault lawsuit if the third party’s negligence allowed the sexual assault or abuse to occur. One of the most common examples of this is negligent security cases in which a property owner is sued for failing to provide adequate security (e.g., cameras, lighting, etc.).
Do You Need to Pursue Criminal Charges Before Suing for Sexual Abuse?
Victims of sexual abuse or assault are not required to pursue criminal prosecution before bringing a civil lawsuit against the abuser. Victims can file a civil suit for sexual assault even if they never reported the assault or abuse to the police. There can be many reasons why a victim may choose not to report a sexual assault or not to cooperate with criminal charges against the abuser.
If the sexual assault is reported to the police and criminal charges are brought, the outcome of the criminal action against the abuser will also have no impact on the victim’s right to bring a civil lawsuit. Even if the abuser goes to trial on the sexual assault charges and gets acquitted, they can still be successfully sued in a civil case. Proving sexual assault or abuse in a civil lawsuit is much easier than proving it in a criminal case.
Is Sexual Abuse or Assault Easier to Prove in a Civil Lawsuit Compared to Criminal?
The burden of proof for a plaintiff in a sexual abuse/assault lawsuit is significantly lower than the burden of proof the prosecution faces in a criminal case for the same sexual misconduct. The well-known standard in criminal cases requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a very high standard of proof that can be very difficult to reach in sexual assault cases because there is often a “he said / she said” dispute about consent.
If a sexual assault victim files a civil lawsuit, however, the reasonable doubt standard does not apply. The burden of proof for civil cases is “preponderance of the evidence.” This basically requires the plaintiff to show that it was “more likely than not” that the alleged abuse occurred. Juries in sex abuse cases have a much easier time finding in favor of plaintiffs under this reduced standard of proof, even when there is a dispute about consent.
What is the Statute of Limitations for a Sex Abuse Lawsuit?
The statute of limitations for filing a sexual abuse lawsuit varies by state. Some states have short limitations periods of 2 years or less. Other states have longer limitations of 4 years or more. The applicable deadline for filing a sexual assault lawsuit will also depend on whether the victim is an adult or a minor (under 18) at the time of the assault or abuse.
(a) When the Victim is an Adult
If the victim is an adult (over 18) when the sexual assault occurs, the statute of limitations on their civil claim will begin running from the date of the assault. Depending on what state the case is in, the limitations period could be anywhere from 1 to 6 years. In Maryland, claims for sexual abuse or assault are subject to the general 3-year statute of limitations that applies to all tort claims. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-101.
This means that if Jane is sexually assaulted by John on Janaury 1, 2021, she has until 1-1-2024 to file a civil lawsuit against John for the assault. If Jane does not sue John before the three-year period expires on January 1, 2024, she will be legally barred from ever suing him.
(b) When the Victim is a Child
When the victim of sexual abuse is a minor (under 18) when the incident(s) occurs, the statute of limitations on their civil lawsuit for the assault will not start to run until they reach the age majority (18). Under Maryland’s 3-year SOL for sexual assault claims, this means that when the victim is a minor, they have until their 21st birthday to file a lawsuit even if the abuse occurred when they were just 8 or 9.
Let’s say Jane is sexually abused by her youth group pastor, Reverend John, over a 3-year period beginning when she was just 7 years old and ending when she was 10. Jane was a minor when the abuse occurred, so she has until her 21st birthday to decide whether she wants to file a civil lawsuit against Rev. John (or the church).
In response to the clergy abuse scandals, 15 states have recently passed new laws that significantly expanded the limitations period for victims to file civil lawsuits. These states have either significantly extended or completely lifted their existing statutes of limitation to allow sex abuse lawsuits even when the abuse occurred decades earlier.
These new rules vary from state to state. Some states created 1 or 2-year “lookback windows,” during which childhood sex abuse victims would be allowed to sue no matter how many years had passed. Other states simply extended the limitations period for abuse claims.