Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse may have the option of filing a personal injury-based lawsuit against the perpetrator in civil court. Let's look at how these kinds of cases work, how they differ from the criminal law process, and some potential hurdles to consider.
Even though a sexual assault incident can give rise to a criminal prosecution—which can result in jail time, fines, probation, and other sanctions against the offender if a conviction is obtained—a civil lawsuit is usually the only way a sexual assault victim can get monetary compensation (called "damages" in legalese) for harm suffered.
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 not usually a cause of action called "sexual assault" in civil law, you’ll likely need to choose another legal theory under which to hold the perpetrator liable—which probably means personal injury causes of action like civil assault/battery and 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 stem from the physical and emotional harm the victim suffered, and will continue to suffer, as a result of the abuse. That includes compensation for "pain and suffering" and anxiety (even PTSD-like responses in some cases) resulting from the incident(s).
Bear in mind that even if your civil lawsuit is successful—the perpetrator is held liable and is ordered to pay you a significant amount of money—unless the perpetrator/defendant has significant personal assets, it may be very difficult to collect. Most incidents giving rise to personal injury lawsuits are covered by liability insurance policies (think car accidents, slip and fall incidents, even dog bites). But insurance policies exclude coverage for intentional acts, so the only source of compensation in these kinds of cases might be the perpetrator’s personal assets, unless another party might also be on the legal hook.
In some cases, a civil suit can be brought against another party, in addition to the perpetrator of the assault or abuse. 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:
For example, since the 1990's, Roman Catholic Dioceses and Archdioceses across the country have faced allegations of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy, with hundreds of millions of dollars being paid out in settlements nationwide.
Recently, Uber® and Lyft® have faced dozens of lawsuits claiming that the rideshare giants haven't done enough to protect passengers from sexual assault, and have ignored numerous complaints of driver behavior ranging from inappropriate to criminal. Learn more about Uber® and Lyft® liability for rideshare passengers' sexual assault.
As far as proving that the perpetrator/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 a criminal case, on the other hand, the burden of proof requires the prosecution to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt", which is a much tougher standard to meet.
One potential hurdle in a civil lawsuit based on sexual assault is the statute of limitations. This is a state law that puts a time limit on the victim's right to file a lawsuit seeking damages from the perpetrator. A number of states have passed (or are considering) special time limits for civil lawsuits based on sexual assault or abuse, especially those involving victims who were minors at the time of the underlying incident. A few states have even enacted so-called "lookback windows" that designate a special time period in which victims are allowed to file civil lawsuits over decades-old abuse. Talk to a personal injury lawyer to understand the statute of limitations deadline and other lawsuit-filing rules in your state, and how those laws might apply to your potential case.