Filing a Civil Lawsuit for Child Sexual Abuse

Unlike the criminal law process, which punishes abusers, civil lawsuits compensate survivors of sexual abuse.

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.

Interplay of the Criminal and Civil Processes

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.

Who Can Sue?

Both the child and the child’s legal care giver—birth parents or otherwise—can 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.

Potential Causes of Action in a Child Sexual Abuse Case

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. 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.

Child Sexual Abuse and the Statute of Limitations

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. 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.

Additional Liable Parties Beyond the Perpetrator

If the sexual abuse incident occurred at a school or a place of business, the perpetrator of the abuse might not be the only one to face civil liability.

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.)

An entity or institution can also face liability for failing to adequately protect its young members from sexual abuse by someone in a position of authority. That's 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.

The causes of action and liability theories discussed 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.

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