Can the Victim of a Sexual Assault File a Civil Lawsuit?

Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse can file a case in civil court against the perpetrator, and in some cases, additional parties.

Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse can – and often do – file a lawsuit against the perpetrator in civil court. Even though any kind of sexual assault incident can give rise to a criminal prosecution -- which can result in jail time, fines, probation, and other sanctions against the defendant if a conviction is obtained -- a civil lawsuit is usually the only way that a sexual assault victim can get monetary compensation for harm suffered.

Types of Claims and Damages

The amount and type of compensation that is available in a civil lawsuit over sexual abuse will depend on the specific facts of the case, and the legal theory on which the personal injury lawsuit is based (a legal theory is called a “cause of action” in this context). Since there is no cause of action called “sexual assault,” you’ll need to choose another legal theory under which to hold the perpetrator liable -- which probably means Assault and Battery, or Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

Regardless of the legal theory under which the civil case proceeds, damages in a sexual assault (or sexual abuse) case will come from the physical and emotional harm the victim suffered, and will continue to suffer, as a result of the abuse.

Due to the egregious nature of these crimes, a jury will often award very high damages. As a result, the perpetrator can be held liable to pay a lot of money. The unfortunate part is, if the defendant is not particularly wealthy, it may be very difficult – if not impossible – to collect. Most liability insurance policies exclude coverage for intentional acts, so the only source of compensation is usually the perpetrator’s personal assets.

Suing Additional Parties

In some cases, a civil suit can be brought against another party in addition to the perpetrator of the assault. For example, if the incident occurred at a place of business, school, or other institution, that entity (sometimes the perpetrator’s employer) could also be liable based on a negligent supervision claim or a failure to provide adequate security.

Proving a Case in Civil Court

As far as proving that the defendant is liable for the assault, if the incident gave rise to a criminal prosecution (and the defendant was convicted), you may have a better chance for success in your civil lawsuit. A complex legal rule known as “collateral estoppel” may entitle you (the plaintiff in the civil suit) to bring in evidence that a jury in a criminal case has already found the defendant guilty of committing the abuse.

Even if there was no corresponding criminal case (no prosecution) or the defendant was not convicted, the victim in the civil case will have an easier time of showing that the defendant is liable for committing the alleged abuse. That’s because the standard of proof is lower in a civil case, compared with what must be proven in criminal court. In order to find the defendant civilly liable for abuse, the plaintiff only needs to show that it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the alleged wrongful act (the legalese phrase for this standard is “by a preponderance of the evidence”). In the criminal case, on the other hand, the burden of proof requires the prosecution to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” – a much harder standard to meet.

What Kind of Lawyer Handles These Cases?

A civil injury (personal injury) lawyer would be best suited to handle this type of case. Most attorneys will offer a no-cost initial consultation, so it’s best to talk to more than one attorney to discuss the details of the case.

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