A civil lawsuit based on child sexual abuse can be brought under a number of different legal theories. In some situations, both the perpetrator and the perpetrator's employer (or another third party) can be sued, either by the child or the child's parents. This article explores the different options.
The criminal law process involves prosecution of the perpetrator (the defendant) by the state, with the prospect of incarceration and other penalties, but it does not generally involve monetary compensation for a sexual abuse victim or the victim's family. But the victim or the victim's family (the plaintiff) can sue the perpetrator in civil court for money damages after the criminal trial is completed.
Depending on the application of a complex rule called "collateral estoppel", it may be easier for a plaintiff to win a civil trial if the defendant has been convicted for the same acts in a criminal trial.
However, even if the defendant was not ultimately convicted in a criminal trial, a civil plaintiff suing for the same wrongful and illegal acts might still make a successful case. This is because a plaintiff in a civil trial must show that it is "more likely than not" the defendant committed the sexual abuse, while the prosecution in a criminal trial must show "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant committed the acts. In other words, in a civil trial, a jury does not have to be as certain about the defendant's guilt in order to find him or her liable.
Either the child or the child's legal care giver—birth parents or otherwise—may be able to sue for child sexual abuse. The child, usually represented by a parent or other guardian, can sue for the physical, emotional and other harm caused by the abuse. The care givers may be able to sue for their own emotional distress and related harm stemming from the abuse. Learn more about emotional distress damages in a personal injury case.
Processing childhood sexual abuse is a very personal undertaking that often requires time and tact, so survivors may be well into adulthood before they're ready to consider their options. Thankfully, many states have passed laws that take these issues of time into account. More on this below.
There is no one civil cause of action called "child sexual abuse." Instead, a plaintiff suing for this kind of harm can include a number of different causes of action in a single personal injury lawsuit against the perpetrator.
As with other cases, the same facts can make a defendant liable under a variety of legal theories. Although finding a defendant liable under multiple theories in a single civil suit does not necessarily mean a plaintiff will receive more in the way of money damages, it does mean the plaintiff has a better chance of winning the case.
The causes of action most likely to fit the facts in a child sexual abuse case are (the linked pages describe the requirements of each civil claim in detail): assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Additionally, depending on the facts of the case, third parties might share liability along with the perpetrator (more on this below). Learn more about filing a civil lawsuit over sexual assault.
A statute of limitations is a state law that puts a time limit on the right to file a lawsuit seeking civil damages after any kind of wrongful act. A number of states have passed (or are considering) special statute of limitations rules for civil cases based on sexual assault or abuse of victims who were minors at the time of the offense.
A few states have even passed "lookback window" laws that designate a special time period in which victims are allowed to file civil lawsuits over abuse that occurred decades earlier. Get details on time limits for filing a lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse, and talk to a personal injury lawyer to understand the statute of limitations deadline and special lawsuit-filing rules for these kinds of cases in your state.
If the sexual abuse incident occurred at a church, school, place of business, or through another organization, the perpetrator of the abuse might not be the only one to face civil liability.
(Note: From a practical standpoint, the addition of potentially-liable parties can be crucial to whether or not a survivor can actually collect compensation for harm resulting from the abuse. While the abuse perpetrator might not have significant assets, organizations often carry ample liability insurance coverage—though in instances where the organization failed to take action in the face of clear, ongoing abuse, insurers might attempt to withdraw that coverage.)
In a number of states, when a church, school district, or other institution's role in the community involves care or oversight of children, a specific civil law statute lays out that entity's legal obligations when it comes to identifying and preventing (and in many instances reporting) abuse of minors or other potential misconduct by employees and other representatives.
So, when a childhood sexual abuse scenario synchs up factually with one of these statutes, and when it results in the type of harm the statute is aimed at preventing, the survivor's civil lawsuit against an institution would likely include allegations of liability based on violation of such a law.
Beyond specific statutes, churches, schools, and other institutions are generally charged with a special legal duty to protect certain members in their care or in their community, including children and adolescents. This legal obligation intersects with the standard principle of fault that guides most injury-related civil cases—"negligence"—to carve out a number of legal arguments that are typically available to a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
For example, a school district that failed to properly screen a hire or monitor an employee who went on to sexually abuse a child could be found liable under a "negligent hiring" or "negligent supervision" theory. (Learn more about proving negligence.)
Liability of this kind is why, over the past few decades, Roman Catholic Dioceses and Archdioceses have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle allegations of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy. And Boy Scouts of America's 2020 bankruptcy filing came as the organization faced hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits from former scouts. BSA's restructuring established a compensation program for sexual abuse survivors, though the claim filing window closed in November 2020, and in August 2021 a federal bankruptcy judge approved an $850M settlement deal meant to resolve "tens of thousands of sex abuse claims" against BSA.
A broad spectrum of resources and options is available to survivors of childhood sexual abuse. And even when you're ready to seek justice by filing a lawsuit, the causes of action and liability theories we've covered here are not the final word. A skilled and creative attorney could potentially find any number of other legal theories that fit the facts of a case. In personal injury law, causes of action are intended to be flexible—society and the legal system have long recognized that a defendant who has clearly done something wrong should not escape liability simply because his or her actions do not fit a pre-existing legal mold. Learn more about finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.