What Are My Legal Options After Sexual Abuse?
Breit Biniazan—May 16, 2022
When it comes to sexual abuse, we’re used to hearing about abusers losing their jobs or even being convicted and sentenced to prison. Like other criminal offenses, sexual abuse can be punished by jail, prison, or hefty fines.
But sexual abuse is a civil offense too. And even if the offender is never charged with a crime, the survivor can bring a civil lawsuit to help compensate for their losses.
Below, we discuss the legal options available to bring charges against an abuser, whether criminal, civil, or both.
- How is Sexual Abuse Defined?
- Civil and Criminal Lawsuits
- Who Can Sue for Sexual Abuse?
- What to Expect From a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
- Next Steps to Bring a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
How is Sexual Abuse Defined?
The terms “sexual abuse” and “sexual assault” are often used interchangeably. But under Virginia law, they have distinct meanings.
- Sexual abuse describes sexual crimes that are committed against minors.
- Sexual assault describes sexual crimes that are committed against adults.
The same acts can constitute either sexual abuse or sexual assault, depending on the age of the survivor at the time of the abuse.
Some of these acts include:
- Rape or attempted rape
- Child molesting
- Sexual battery and aggravated sexual battery
- Object sexual penetration
- “Carnal knowledge” of a child between ages 13 and 15
This list isn’t exclusive. Sexual abuse and assault can also include acts like unwanted sexual touching or groping, forcing a minor to watch child pornography, or exposing one’s genitals to a minor. If you suspect your child has been sexually abused, it’s important to start a dialog with them.
Two Paths to Hold Sexual Abusers Accountable: Civil and Criminal Lawsuits
In the U.S., there are two sets of laws that govern:
- Criminal law, which punishes the wrongdoer; and
- Civil law, which protects the survivor.
Criminal claims are brought by a prosecutor, while civil claims are brought by a survivor’s attorney.
Because civil attorneys represent their clients’ best interest, a personal injury lawsuit can give survivors more control over how the case proceeds.
Just like a physical wound, sexual abuse has the power to injure. And its emotional toll is real.
Who Can Sue for Sexual Abuse?
When a child is sexually abused, a lawsuit may be brought by:
- The child (after they turn 18)
- The child’s parents, guardians, or other legal caregivers
Parents of a child who was sexually abused may also be able to bring their own claim to recover emotional distress damages.
The statute of limitations for sexual abuse can be different from other personal injury claims. When a minor is sexually abused, they generally have 20 years from their 18th birthday, or 20 years from when they first report the abuse to a therapist or other professional, to file a lawsuit.
Why Sue for Sexual Abuse?
There are several reasons you might want to file a sexual abuse claim against the abuser.
First, survivors deserve the satisfaction of holding their abuser accountable. This accountability can help survivors get closure and peace.
Next, by exposing a sexual predator—especially one who wasn’t criminally charged—you can protect others from being abused.
One in three sexual abusers charged with a crime already has a criminal history, and many are serial sexual abusers who will go on to commit more crimes. By sharing their story, survivors and their families may be able to prevent the abuser from harming others.
Finally, survivors may be able to recover damages for the losses they’ve suffered. Survivors and their families could be awarded damages to cover the costs of medical treatment, mental health services, lost wages, mental trauma, and other financial damages.
The decision to come forward and report sexual abuse can be an incredibly hard one. And there’s no wrong path when it comes to moving forward from abuse or assault. It’s important to take matters at your own pace.
Still, many survivors have found it rewarding to take their power back by holding their abusers financially accountable for their crimes.
What to Expect From a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
In many ways, sexual abuse lawsuits are like other personal injury lawsuits.
But because the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse is longer than other personal injury claims, attorneys have more time to investigate and create the strongest possible case before filing a complaint.
Before the Lawsuit: Gathering Evidence and Investigating the Claim
There’s groundwork to be laid before a lawsuit is ever filed.
An attorney will investigate a claim of sexual abuse by interviewing the client, other witnesses (like parents or other relatives), and anyone else who may have relevant information.
Once the attorney has the facts, they can research potential causes of action and see what potential claims their client might have. They’ll work with the client to discuss goals and desired outcomes.
During the Lawsuit: Depositions, Discovery, and Negotiations
After a civil complaint has been filed, both parties are entitled to the discovery of evidence. This means that the survivor’s attorney can request information from the attacker, and vice versa.
Most of this information will take the form of:
- Requests for admission, a series of yes-or-no questions that the receiving party must admit, deny, or answer in part. Answers to requests for admission can be binding at trial.
- Interrogatories, open-ended written questions that must be answered under oath.
- Document production requests, which can include requests for medical or mental health records, cell phone records, text messages, social media posts, or any other written material that is considered relevant.
- Depositions, or sworn interviews that seek testimony about the claim.
Each party is only allowed to request evidence that is directly relevant to the claim or defense. This means that if the attacker requests evidence that is irrelevant or only intended to harass, your attorney can file a motion to strike the request.
When a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Goes to Trial
Many sexual abuse lawsuits, like other personal injury lawsuits, will settle before trial.
Settling can sometimes be a good option, especially in cases where the survivor doesn’t want to testify or confront their abuser.
On the other hand, if you plan for a lawsuit to settle, you can run the risk of being unprepared to try a case. Trial can be necessary to help you recover the compensation you deserve.
Preparing for trial includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Creating witness lists
- Drafting questions for each witness
- Gathering evidence to admit as exhibits
- Helping witnesses prepare to testify
- Anticipating defense questions and preparing witnesses for cross-examination
- Preparing an opening statement
- For jury trials, researching potential jurors and drafting preliminary voir dire questions
Next Steps to Bring a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
If you know someone who has suffered from sexual abuse, you know the harm can linger like an invisible wound. The effects of sexual abuse can endure for years, resulting in lost relationships, jobs, opportunities, and even a loss of hope.
Sexual abuse has the power to injure just like any physical hurt.
If the authorities don’t bring charges against your abuser, you still have the power to bring charges in a civil courtroom.
At Breit Biniazan, we’ve helped over 100 sexual abuse survivors sue their attackers. If you need to consult an attorney with experience in this area, or just have your questions answered, we’re here to help. Get in touch today to learn more about your options.
By Courtney Sweasy