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 (these different theories are each called a "cause of action"). In some situations both the perpetrator and the perpetrator's employer can be sued, either by the child or the child's parents. This article explores the different options.

Interaction of the Criminal and Civil Processes

The criminal law process entails prosecution of the perpetrator (the defendant) by the state, with the prospect of incarceration and other penalties, but it does not generally involve compensation for a sexual abuse victim or the victim’s family. A 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 win a civil trial. 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 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 the emotional and related harm they have suffered knowing that their child was abused. Learn more about emotional distress damages in a personal injury case.

The Different 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 child sexual abuse 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, the defendant might be potentially liable for false imprisonment, if he or she threatened the child in some way or otherwise confined the child to a particular area. Most of these causes of action fall under the umbrella of intentional torts.

An employer who failed to properly screen or monitor an employee that sexually abused a child could also be found liable under a "negligent hiring" or "negligent retention" theory, especially if the employee's duties involved care or supervision of children. Learn more about proving negligence.

The causes of action 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 that 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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