Can a Sexual Assault Victim File a Civil Lawsuit?

A sexual abuse survivor may be able to sue the perpetrator in civil court, but getting compensation might be tricky.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse can reach out to a number of different organizations that are dedicated to providing immediate help. And in the longer term, sexual assault survivors might have the option of filing a personal injury-based lawsuit against the perpetrator in civil court.

Sexual Assault Survivor Assistance Organizations

From simply sharing stories in a safe environment, to formulating the right path forward and providing a bridge to mental health services, here are a few organizations that can help sexual assault survivors:

  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, operating the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) along with over 1,000 local partners across the country. RAINN also "carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice."
  • The National Sexual Violence Resource Center bills itself as "the leading nonprofit in providing information and tools to prevent and respond to sexual violence."
  • Wings Foundation is a comprehensive resource whose mission is to "connect survivors, loved ones, providers and communities with the resources they need to speak about, heal from and thrive beyond childhood sexual abuse trauma, to live their fullest, healthiest lives."
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's Sexual Abuse portal includes information for survivors and supporters, including details on treatment options and a vast array of resources.

Civil Claims and Damages Based on Sexual Assault

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. But a civil lawsuit is usually the only way a sexual assault victim can get monetary compensation for harm suffered.

A criminal case arising from sexual assault usually involves a law enforcement investigation and formal charges brought by the district attorney. In contrast, a civil case is brought to court by the sexual assault survivor (as the plaintiff) against the perpetrator of the assault, and/or others who may be liable under the law (the defendant).

Learn more about criminal versus civil assault cases.

What Acts Equal "Sexual Assault"?

Every state's criminal code spells out the exact conduct that amounts to criminal sexual assault, and many states have also defined the kind of conduct that can give rise to a civil lawsuit over sexual assault.

In California, for example, the law says that if one person commits "sexual battery" against another, the perpetrator can be held liable in civil court (through a personal injury lawsuit) for the victim's harm. A person who commits sexual battery in California can also be ordered to pay "punitive damages" to the victim.

So what is "sexual battery" in California? According to California Civil Code section 1708.5, a person who does any of the following has committed sexual battery:

  • acts with the intent to cause a harmful or offensive contact with an intimate part of someone else's body, and a sexually offensive contact results
  • acts to cause an imminent apprehension of harmful or offensive contact with an intimate part of someone else's body, and a sexually offensive contact results
  • causes contact between a sexual organ, from which a condom has been removed, and the intimate part of another who did not verbally consent to the condom being removed, and
  • causes contact between an intimate part of the person and a sexual organ of another from which the person removed a condom without verbal consent.

In plain English, this means in California (and in many other states) a lawsuit over sexual assault could be justified after a variety of wrongful conduct, including rape, groping, and "stealthing."

If there's no civil statute that defines sexual assault or sexual battery in your state, standard personal injury causes of action like civil assault/battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress might apply to a civil lawsuit over sexual assault.

What Are Damages In a Sexual Assault Civil Lawsuit?

In civil lawsuits, "damages" is a term that refers to the harm suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the defendant's wrongful actions. There are different categories of damages, depending on the specific facts of the case, and the legal theory on which the personal injury lawsuit is based. In general, damages in a sexual assault (or sexual abuse) lawsuit can include compensation for:

  • physical injuries suffered by the victim, including the cost of medical care to treat those injuries
  • emotional trauma and psychological harm the victim suffered (including "pain and suffering," anxiety, and PTSD-like responses)
  • the cost of mental health services necessary to treat the victim's emotional and psychological harm resulting from the abuse, and
  • financial impact of the victim's inability to work because of the abuse, and related economic losses.

Challenges of Civil Lawsuits Over Sexual Assault

Even if your civil lawsuit is successful—meaning the perpetrator is found liable and is ordered to pay you money—unless the perpetrator has significant personal assets, it may be very difficult to collect any court judgment you receive.

While most incidents giving rise to personal injury lawsuits are covered by liability insurance policies (think car accidents, slip and fall incidents, even dog bites), liability insurance policies specifically exclude coverage for intentional acts. With no insurance company money to rely on, the only source of compensation for damages in a sexual assault lawsuit might be the perpetrator's personal assets, unless another party might also be on the legal hook.

Additional Parties Could Be Liable for Sexual Assault or Sexual Abuse

In some sexual assault scenarios, a civil lawsuit can be brought against someone other than 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:

  • under a negligent supervision theory
  • based on the failure to provide adequate security, or
  • for failing to adequately protect a young and/or vulnerable individual or group.

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, rideshare giants Uber and Lyft have faced dozens of lawsuits claiming that the companies 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.

Proving a Sexual Assault Case in Civil Court

When a sexual assault incident leads to a criminal prosecution (and the defendant is convicted), the survivor may have a better chance of success in a civil lawsuit. A complex legal rule known as "collateral estoppel" may entitle the survivor (now the plaintiff in the civil case) to bring in evidence that a criminal court jury 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 might have an easier time getting justice against the perpetrator of the abuse. That's because the standard of proof is lower in a civil case, compared with what must be proven in criminal court. The plaintiff in a civil case only needs to show that it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the sexual assault (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.

The Statute of Limitations Filing Deadline

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 against the perpetrator. If too much time has passed, the sexual assault survivor might be unable to file a lawsuit against the perpetrator, so it's crucial to comply with the statute of limitations.

States That Have Expanded the Statute of Limitations for Victims of Childhood Sexual Assault/Abuse

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. These states include:

Arizona Michigan North Carolina Washington DC
Arkansas Montana Pennsylvania
California New Jersey Texas
Maine New York Vermont

Talk to a 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.

Getting Help After a Sexual Assault

The resources we listed at the beginning of this article are probably the best place to start when you're ready to reach out for help after a sexual assault. Contacting law enforcement might also make sense. (Learn more about pressing criminal charges against someone.)

If you're ready to learn more about your other legal options after a sexual assault incident, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an attorney. Everything you and the attorney discuss is (and remains) confidential, regardless of whether you end up working together. Learn more about finding the right attorney for you, and how a lawyer can help. You can use the features right on this page to connect with a lawyer near you.

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