Can Sexual Abuse Victims Sue in Civil Court?
The news has been filled with stories of rampant child sexual abuse within respected organizations, including the Catholic church. Whether there is one perpetrator who was well shielded by the organization despite multiple offenses, or many perpetrators, as in the case of the church, the harm done to innocent children is impossible to calculate. Some, but not all, of the offenders are charged and convicted in criminal court. Can sexual abuse victims sue in civil court?
The answer is yes, but it is complicated. On the one hand, victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher or fellow student, coach, doctor, or religious leader almost certainly have a legal basis on which to sue; lawyers refer to this as a “cause of action.” There is no cause of action called “sexual abuse,” but sexual abuse may give rise to a number of causes of action. Groping or unwanted touching, for instance, could lead to a lawsuit for assault, battery, or infliction of emotional distress (either intentional or negligent).
Filing Multiple Claims in a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
The person filing the lawsuit, or on whose behalf it is filed, is called the plaintiff. Typically, a plaintiff will make claims in the lawsuit for as many causes of action as possible. This is not intended to result in a greater financial award, and, in fact, it will not. But there is a reason behind it.
Each cause of action has elements that must be proven in order for a court to hold the person being sued (the defendant) responsible. The elements of each claim are somewhat different. A jury or judge might find that a plaintiff was able to prove the elements of a claim for battery, but not one for intentional infliction of emotional distress. So, filing claims for multiple causes of action increases the chance that a lawsuit will be successful.
However, a good attorney will not just throw claims at the wall like pieces of spaghetti to “see what sticks.” You want the judge or jury to take your claims seriously, so your lawyer should file every claim that could be proven.
The Difference Between a Criminal and Civil Case for Sexual Abuse
Some survivors of abuse are reluctant to file a civil case against their abuser or his employer, especially if a criminal charge against the abuser didn’t result in a conviction. This can be a mistake. While both civil lawsuits and criminal charges help to hold abusers accountable for their actions, the purposes of the two types of case do not completely overlap. A civil case also serves to get some financial compensation for the abuse survivor. We know that no amount of money can compensate a survivor of abuse have been through. But money can help pay for treatment that can help them process and move on, and to have fewer financial worries while they are recovering.
Different types of legal cases have different burdens of proof, and in a criminal case, it is the heaviest one. The prosecutor must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the abuser committed the crimes alleged. If a jury thinks the accused probably committed the crimes, but is not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, they must acquit.
In a civil case, however, the burden of proof is “more likely than not.” The jury must only conclude that it is more likely than not that the accused did what he is accused of in order to find in favor of the plaintiff. So even in a situation where an accused abuser was acquitted in a criminal trial, he could still be found liable in a civil case.
The decision to file a civil case against a sexual abuser is a difficult one. It can be emotionally stressful, and of course, there is no guarantee of victory. However, even in a case that doesn’t yield a financial award, many survivors of abuse feel a sense of relief for having told their story and done everything possible to hold their abuser to account.
If you, or a loved one, has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher, priest, employer, coach, doctor, therapist, or other person, consult with an experienced injury attorney. An attorney familiar with these cases will let you know if the statute of limitations has expired or if you still have time to make a claim. If you do, your attorney will let you know what to expect from the process and help you evaluate the strength of your claim so you can make the decision that is best for you. We invite you to contact Huegli Fraser with any questions you may have.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.