Montana's Legal Options for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

In Montana, survivors of childhood sexual abuse now have more time to take civil or criminal action against their abusers.

Montana recently joined a growing number of states that have passed laws aimed at expanding the rights of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Survivors have long had the ability to sue their abusers, but for many, the decision to speak out and seek justice came too late under applicable legal deadlines. In response, states made changes to the laws that set these time limits.

In 2019, Montana lawmakers passed HB0640, which expanded (and in some instances eliminated) the deadlines for both civil and criminal actions arising from sexual abuse.

Statutes of Limitations and Sexual Assault

A statute of limitations is a law that places a deadline on how much time is allowed to pass before a legal action (civil or criminal) must be initiated. The main rationale for these laws is to preserve fairness in the legal system. When too much time passes between an alleged wrong and a court case seeking a corresponding legal remedy for that wrong, it can make it difficult for both sides to gather evidence and mount an effective case. Memories fade, witnesses die, and evidence gets destroyed or lost.

If the statute of limitations deadline for a particular legal wrong passes, no legal proceedings can occur. In the civil lawsuit context, that means near-certain dismissal of a case brought too late, and for the potential plaintiff, it means loss of any path to a legal remedy for even the most egregious of injury.

But it can take years (even decades) for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to process their trauma. And abusers (and the institutions that employ them, like churches and youth organizations) are often trusted members of the community, making it harder for some survivors to come forward.

As a result, more and more state legislatures are now realizing that any statute of limitations that applies to cases like these needs to take this kind of extended timeline into account. Learn more about filing a lawsuit over abuse that happened a long time ago.

Montana's Criminal Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse

For sexual crimes committed against minors, there is no longer a criminal statute of limitations. Montana's previous law said that criminal prosecution of these cases must begin within five years after the survivor turned 18. Now, there's no time limit on the pressing of criminal charges over childhood sexual abuse in Montana, thanks to HB0640.

Montana's Civil Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

If a person was under 18 years of age when the underlying incident(s) took place, they must file any civil lawsuit over sexual abuse before they turn 27 years of age, or within three years of learning/understanding that the childhood sexual abuse occurred, whichever is later.

Practically speaking, this gives individuals until their 27th birthday to take legal action in civil court. The old civil statute of limitation required prospective plaintiffs to file a civil complaint before they turned 21.

This new statute of limitations applies whether the Montana childhood sexual abuse survivor decides to sue the person(s) who committed the abuse or the institution(s) that allowed or failed to stop the abuse.

Is There a "Lookback Window" for Montana Lawsuits Over Sexual Abuse?

Yes, but it closed on May 7, 2020. When the Montana state legislature passed the new statute of limitations for civil cases, it created a one-year "lookback window" during which almost anyone who was a victim of childhood sexual abuse could sue those responsible. This right to sue existed no matter how far back the sexual abuse occurred. However, if suing the abuser during this lookback window, the childhood sexual abuse survivor could only bring suit if the alleged abuser:

  • admitted to sexually abusing the survivor in a written and signed statement or a recording
  • admitted to sexually abusing the survivor under oath or in a plea agreement or
  • was convicted of childhood sexual abuse or a related crime where the plaintiff was the victim.

If suing an institution that played a role in enabling the sexual abuse to occur, the childhood sexual abuse survivor could only do so if there were admissions from one or more individuals of the institution that showed:

  • the institution knew or had reason to know the sexual abuse took place, and
  • failed to take appropriate action to stop the abuse from occurring in the future.

But remember, Montana's "lookback window" is not closed, and any lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse must adhere to the updated statute of limitations deadline set by Montana HB0640..

Resources for Montana Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

If you or someone you know is the victim of childhood sexual abuse, see our companion article Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse. State-specific resources can be found at the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

If you're ready to learn more about your legal options, you can connect with a Montana attorney using the chat and information submission tools right on this page, or get more information on how to choose the right attorney for you and your case.

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