Sexual abuse victims and their families face many uncertainties when considering whether or not to pursue legal actions against offenders and other responsible individuals and entities. From unfamiliar and intimidating legal proceedings to the difficult experience of reliving traumatic memories, victims often find themselves in overwhelming positions. Although these experiences are far from easy, they can be managed with the sincere support and legal assistance of proven California sexual abuse attorneys from The Senators Firm.
In an effort to provide sexual abuse survivors throughout California and the nation with the information they need to begin their journey through the civil justice system, our knowledgeable and caring lawyers have compiled some of the most common questions victims voice in the early stages of their legal process. Below, you can find answers to these questions.
I suspect that my child may have been sexually abused, but I am not sure. What can I do?
Sexual abuse is frequently unreported because children are reluctant to inform their parents or may not even realize that they have been abused. It is important to maintain good communication with your kids, and to explain to them in clear terms what constitutes inappropriate touching or other abusive behavior by adults. Often, children will exhibit unexplained changes in behavior as a means of “acting out” their trauma. These signs may be subtle and should be evaluated by a healthcare professional who is trained in child abuse detection. For more information about the signs of sexual abuse, click on our “abuse resources” link.
What types of abuse can an abuse survivor sure for in civil court?
In civil law, the phrase “sexual abuse” covers a lot of ground, including rape, sexual assault or battery, inappropriate physical contact of a sexual nature, adult sexual intercourse with a minor (statutory rape), sexual exploitation of a minor, sexual bullying or hazing, sexual harassment in the workplace, and “cyber stalking” (use of the Internet or another electronic means of communication to sexually harass an individual). In addition, victims of childhood sexual exploitation, such as children used as subjects in pornography, may be entitled to restitution from both the producers of child porn as well as individuals who come into possession of such materials. The laws of federal, state and local governments may vary, so it is important to consult with an attorney experienced in the sexual abuse field who can analyze the facts of your individual situation to determine if you have a case.
Do abusers have to be arrested and convicted of a sexual abuse crime before a survivor can recover damages in civil court?
No. In most instances, civil cases can be brought separate and apart from criminal proceedings. The right of a survivor to recover damages in a civil case does not depend on the arrest or conviction of the perpetrator in criminal court. There are many reasons why acts of sexual abuse may not be criminally prosecuted. There may be a lack of resources on the part of law enforcement. There may be a concern that the available evidence is not adequate to meet the stricter burdens of criminal courts; or, the statute of limitations in a criminal matter may have expired. Whatever the reason, the lack of criminal prosecution has no bearing on the ability of a survivor to bring a case for civil damages. More importantly, even where an abuse perpetrator is found not guilty in a criminal trial his victims may often nevertheless bring a civil action for damages.
What are the differences between criminal and civil abuse cases?
Criminal cases are brought by the government on behalf of the state and are designed to enforce criminal laws with the objective of punishing and incarcerating abusers. While abuse victims may be involved as witnesses in criminal cases, they do not ordinarily receive compensation for their injuries; however some states, including California, can order criminal defendants to pay restitution (see, Marsy’s Law). Criminal cases must be proved in court “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Also, statutes of limitation can preclude criminal proceedings if significant time has passed after the crime occurred.
Civil cases are brought by abuse survivors in order to recover monetary damages for injuries they sustained as a result of abuse. In addition, the standard of proof in a civil case is generally less strict than in a criminal case. Normally, a civil litigant need only prove his or her case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” Also, statutes of limitation in civil sexual abuse matters may be longer than in criminal cases. Compensatory damages available in civil sexual abuse cases may include past and future medical expenses and lost wages, as well as damages for pain and suffering.
Who can abuse survivors sue in a civil case?
Of course, abusers can be sued in civil court for damages caused by their conduct. In addition, employers of abusers (corporations and other businesses), as well as abuse in churches, service organizations (e.g., Boy Scouts child abuse), governmental agencies (e.g., public/private school child abuse, social services, the military) and other entities and institutions may be sued and held civilly liable in California and many other states for their negligence in failing to detect, report or prevent sexual abuse. This can be critical in cases where the perpetrator has little or no financial assets.
The laws concerning who can be sued for sexual abuse vary significantly from state to state, so it is important for survivors to consult with lawyers with experience in litigating cases against large corporations, churches, service organizations, and governmental agencies. The Senators Firm has vast experience in identifying potential defendants in sexual abuse lawsuits and successfully building cases against them.
If I was sexually abused many years ago, can I still bring a civil lawsuit for damages?
This is a very important question that causes a lot of confusion and concern among abuse survivors. Most civil statutes allowing survivors to sue for damages are subject to “statutes of limitation” that require abuse survivors to file their lawsuits within a certain amount of time after the abuse or injuries from the abuse occur. These statutes of limitation vary greatly from state to state and are often very complex. In general, time limits on survivors’ rights to bring a civil case will depend on the following factors: (1) the age of the victim at the time of the abuse, (2) the type of abuse that occurred, (3) whether or not the abuse occurred continuously over a lengthy period of time, and (4) the language of the applicable law setting forth the statute of limitations that will govern a specific case.
In California, most civil claims for personal injuries must be filed within two years following a plaintiff’s “discovery” of his or her injuries; however, there are special extended statutes of limitation in cases of childhood sexual abuse. In such cases, certain civil abuse claims may be filed up to eight years after a victim has reached the age of 18 (so, 26 years of age). There are additional California laws that may further extend the time limit to file a case depending on the facts. There are also special requirements that come into play when the abuse involves public school teachers and other government employees. In such cases, abuse survivors in California may be required to file government claims long before the normal statute of limitations expires in order to sue the governmental agencies that employed or supervised abusers.
Statutes of limitation in states outside of California vary tremendously and may be very restrictive or, in states such as Alaska, may allow certain claims to be brought by sexual abuse survivors with little or no time limits. Moreover, as the number of highly publicized sexual abuse cases all over the nation has increased dramatically during the past decade, including scandals involving the Catholic church and organizations such as the Boy Scouts, many states are considering invoking changes to their laws which could lengthen statutes of limitation or eliminate them altogether.
If an abuse survivor was on active duty with the military during the period in which a statute of limitations would ordinarily apply, the statute may need to be “tolled” (delayed) according to a federal law known as the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act.
Given that statutes of limitations involving civil sexual abuse claims are so complicated and varied, it is critical that you do not delay in seeking the guidance of an experienced sexual abuse attorney who can evaluate your individual situation and preserve your rights to obtain damages. The lawyers at The Senators Firm have a wealth of experience navigating through statute of limitations issues.
What are the attorneys’ fees and costs that I might incur if I file a sexual abuse lawsuit?
We represent all of our sexual abuse clients through “contingent fee agreements.” A contingent fee agreement is a contract for services between you and our firm which sets forth in detailed fashion the services we will provide to you during the investigation and prosecution of your case, as well as the fees and costs. Subject to State Bar rules, our contingent fee agreement provides that our firm will advance (pay for) all of the costs associated with your lawsuit (e.g. court costs, expert witnesses, exhibits, etc.) and that those costs, along with our attorneys’ fees, will not be paid by you until and unless we obtain a monetary recovery on your behalf. Simply put: If you don’t recover compensation, you don’t pay.
If you recover a settlement or verdict at trial, the amount of fees we charge will be based on a percentage of your recovery. That percentage, which is spelled out in the contingent fee agreement, will depend on the type and complexity of your case and upon applicable laws and state bar ethical rules. In cases involving minors, our fees may be set either by state law, or subject to court approval.
Given the complex nature of many sexual abuse cases, we often collaborate with other prominent firms in and outside of California – at no additional charge to our clients – in order to enhance the prosecution of cases against well-funded adversaries such as churches, school districts and other large entities and institutions. At The Senators Firm, we make it a point to walk each of our clients through all of the provisions of our fee contracts so that any questions or concerns are addressed before the document is signed.
What can I expect to happen once I decide to hire the Senators Firm?
Every case is different, but most of our sexual abuse litigation goes through several phases between the time you engage us to represent you and the time that your case is resolved.
- Getting you and your family the help you need to start the healing process: Our clients are hurting when they come to us. You can hire us to provide legal services, but we are also often called upon to help guide survivors and family members who are in immediate need of medical and psychological treatment, counseling, social services, and assistance with insurance issues.
- Pre-lawsuit investigation: Unless the statute of limitations compels us to file your lawsuit immediately, we normally conduct a comprehensive investigation of the facts surrounding any abuse claim in order to make sure that we are covering all of our bases before a civil complaint is actually filed. Elements of our investigation may include contact with law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s office, obtaining and reviewing police reports, undertaking a comprehensive investigation as to all potential defendants, determining the existence of other abuse claims against the same perpetrator, and talking with treating therapists.
- Filing the complaint: Civil lawsuits generally commence with the filing of a “complaint for damages.” In most non-abuse cases, the complaint is filed in the name of the plaintiff. In sexual abuse cases filed in California, the complaint may be filed using pseudonyms such as Jane Roe or John Doe, or some other designation that will prevent the identity of the plaintiff from appearing on any court documents.
- Discovery: Discovery is the longest phase of a civil case. During the discovery phase, lawyers on both sides use various methods of gathering evidence about the claims. Discovery is usually done through written questions submitted to the parties as well as depositions of the parties and witnesses. The lawyers at The Senators Firm have decades of experience in conducting discovery. We have had tremendous success in compelling defendants, including large corporations and other institutions, to turn over incriminating documents and other evidence.
- Trial preparation: Once the discovery phase has concluded, and if a case has not settled, final preparations are made for trial. Trial preparation is an intense process of marshaling together all of the evidence in order to be able to present it to a judge and jury.
If a case is close to its trial date and has not settled, the judge assigned to the case will typically order a settlement conference. Also, the parties may at any time agree to negotiate a settlement with a private mediator. Many cases are resolved at this stage of the proceedings. Lawyers at The Senators Firm have many years of experience in conducting aggressive and effective settlement negotiations.
Negotiating a favorable settlement requires certain strategic skills and experience that not all trial lawyers have. Our attorneys are recognized as artful negotiators who have successfully resolved thousands of cases through mediation and settlement talks. Pretrial settlements often provide clients in sexual abuse cases with multiple benefits, including a favorable monetary recovery without the costs, uncertainty, and emotional burdens of a trial.
- Trial: Trials occur when the parties are unable to resolve a case through negotiation. Most civil cases settle before trial. Of those that don’t, many will settle during trial.
I do not live in California. Do you take cases outside of the state?
Subject to the ethical rules of each state, we are often called upon to investigate sexual abuse cases outside of California. In many cases, we litigate such cases in association with co-counsel in other states. In addition, we maintain relationships with experienced sexual abuse law firms and lawyers across the United States. If, for some reason, we can’t handle your case, we will make sure you are referred to a competent and experienced sexual abuse attorney near where you live.
Contact Our Firm for More Answers
These questions and answers were provided to give victims and their families general information about how civil sexual abuse cases work and what can be expected during the process. Every case has its own unique set of facts, and laws can vary from state to state. If you didn’t find the answer to a question you have, of if you would like to learn more about filing a civil claim, your legal rights as a victim, or anything else about your case, then contact The Senators Firm to speak confidentially with a caring and experienced sexual abuse lawyer.