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 no cause of action called "sexual assault" in civil law, you’ll 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 is usually the perpetrator’s personal assets.
In some cases, a civil suit can be brought against another party, in addition to the perpetrator of the assault. 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, or based on the failure to provide adequate security.
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 perpretrator. 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, so talk to a personal injury lawyer to understand the statute of limitations deadline in your state, and how it applies to your potential case.