What Survivors Must Know About Filing a Civil Sexual Abuse Claim

What Survivors Must Know About Filing a Civil Sexual Abuse Claim

Learn about the statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims in all 50 states

One of the biggest hurdles to filing a sexual abuse claim is time. The term “statute of limitations” refers to the amount of time a person has to file a lawsuit.

National Sexual Assault Hotline
Free/confidential/24-7
1-800-656-4673
Chat now

Jump to section

 

A number of high-profile movements and lawsuits, including the #MeToo movement and the multiplaintiff civil lawsuits filed against USA Gymnastics and the Boy Scouts of America, have raised awareness about the prevalence of sexual abuse in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men are sexually abused in the U.S.

As a sexual abuse survivor, you may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the perpetrator and other third parties to recover damages.

In this article, we’ll explain how sexual abuse cases work, and list the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases in all 50 states.

Types of sexual abuse

When used outside of the courtroom, the term “sexual abuse” refers to any type of sexual contact or behavior inflicted on a person without their consent.

Sexual abuse includes:

  • Rape
  • Attempted rape
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex
  • Exposing a victim to unwanted sexual content
  • Sexual harassment

Inside the courtroom, sexual abuse, along with terms like “rape” and “sexual harassment,” have specific legal definitions that vary from state to state.

Facing factsAccording to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 35% of sexual abuse victims don’t report acts of sexual abuse because they’re unsure whether the acts actually constitute sexual abuse.

How common is sexual abuse?

Millions of people are impacted by sexual abuse every single year in the U.S.

According to the CDC, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual abuse. This is an alarming statistic, but in all likelihood, it actually underrepresents the prevalence of sexual abuse because many victims of abuse do not report the crime.

According to research published in the journal of Child Abuse and Neglect, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police and 88% of child sexual abuse is not reported to authorities.

What Survivors Must Know About Filing a Civil Sexual Abuse Claim
Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention


In most cases, sexual abuse starts early. Approximately 22% of rape victims were younger than 12 when they were first raped, and 32% were between the ages of 12 and 17.

Sexual abuse is particularly prevalent in underserved communities. Consider the following facts:

  • Approximately 43% of lesbian and bisexual women, and 30% of gay and bisexual men, report having experienced sexual assault during their lifetimes.
  • Approximately 34% of Native American and Alaskan Native women report experiencing an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, compared with 19% of Black women, 18% of white women, and 7% of Asian American women.
  • Women with disabilities are raped and sexually abused at a rate 2 times that of the general population of women.

Why don’t victims report sexual abuse?

Research shows that people very rarely claim they’ve been abused when they haven’t. On the other hand, survivors often don’t report sexual abuse when it happens.

Here are 5 reasons why a survivor may not report being sexually abused:

  1. Shame. Sexual abuse carries a stigma. Many abuse victims report feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or even responsible for their own abuse. These feelings of shame and embarrassment are particularly prevalent in men. As Karen G. Weiss, an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University explains: “Unwilling to risk emasculation or exposure, men are choosing to remain silent rather than report sexual victimization to the police and others.”
  2. Fear of retaliation. Many victims fear that they will be retaliated against if they report their abuse. Fear of retaliation is particularly common when the abuse occurs at work or within the military. According to a Rand Corporation survey, 32% of men and 28% of women in the military said they experienced retaliation after a reported sexual assault.
  3. Fear of not being believed. Sexual abuse victims may not report abuse for fear that they won’t be believed. From the victim’s perspective, it’s simply not worth the emotional toll and threat of retaliation if they don’t think police or other officials will take them seriously.
  4. Not wanting a friend or family member to be prosecuted. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victims. Often, a victim’s reluctance to get a friend or family member in trouble prevents them from reporting the abuse. This can be particularly true in domestic abuse situations in which the victim relies on the abuser for emotional or financial support.
  5. Fear that too much time has passed. When an abuse occurred a long time ago, the victim may feel that too much time has passed to report the abuse—either because the evidence is no longer available or the statute of limitations has run.
According to @RAINN, approximately 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Often, a victim’s reluctance to get a friend or family member in trouble prevents them from reporting the abuse. Tweet this

Can the victim of sexual abuse file a civil lawsuit?

Anyone who has been the victim of sexual abuse can file a civil lawsuit for damages.

In most cases, the civil lawsuit will be based on 1 of the following legal theories:

  • Battery
  • Assault
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress

Battery

To establish a civil claim for battery in most states, you need to establish the following 3 elements:

  1. An act by the defendant,
  2. An intent to cause harmful or offensive contact, and
  3. Harmful or offensive contact.

Battery can occur when the victim is clothed or unclothed. Examples of acts that constitute battery include:

  • Rape
  • Fondling
  • Forcing a victim to perform oral sex

Assault

Whereas battery causes physical harm, an assault causes the victim to apprehend physical harm. An assault often precedes a battery. As a result, these claims are typically brought together.

The elements of assault include the following:

  • The defendant intends that the victim apprehend the immediate application of unlawful force, and
  • The victim reasonably apprehends the immediate application of unlawful force.

In most states, assault requires that the defendant perform an action. In other words, the defendant has to do more than just threaten unlawful force with words.

Assault without battery is rare, but it can happen. For example, if your boss follows you into the bathroom and pushes open the door to your stall, he may be sued for assault even if he never touches you. This is because you likely feared the immediate application of unlawful force.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress has 3 elements:

  1. The defendant acts intentionally or recklessly,
  2. The defendant’s conduct is extreme and outrageous, and
  3. The conduct causes the victim severe emotional distress.

There’s no clear test to determine whether conduct is “extreme and outrageous.” However, most courts have adopted the following definition:

“Extreme and outrageous conduct is conduct that is so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."

In other words, extreme and outrageous conduct goes beyond the mere indignities, annoyances, hurt feelings, or bad manners that a reasonable person is expected to endure.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress can be a standalone claim, but it’s typically brought along with another claim, such as assault or battery.

Can families of victims sue for sexual abuse?

A family member of a sexual abuse victim may be able to file a civil lawsuit in the following situations:

  • The family member witnessed the assault (in which case they would file a lawsuit based on intentional infliction of emotional distress)
  • The assault resulted in the victim’s death (in which case they would file a wrongful death lawsuit)
  • The abuse resulted in a loss of companionship (in which case they would file a loss of consortium claim)

The differences between a criminal and civil case

When a person is arrested and charged with a crime, they are brought to a criminal court where the government, on behalf of the people of the U.S., prosecutes the case. The goal of a criminal court is to punish criminals through fines or jail time.

When a person (called a “plaintiff”) sues another person (called a “defendant”) for damages, they do so in a civil court. The goal of a civil court is to compensate the plaintiff for any injuries they suffered as a result of the defendant’s actions or inactions.

A sexual abuse case can be tried in a civil court even if no criminal charges are filed against the defendant. What’s more, because civil suits use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which is less stringent than the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, victims of sexual abuse can recover civil damages even if the criminal court declares the defendant innocent of the crime.

Enjuris tip:Although it was not a sexual abuse case, the most famous example of a defendant being found innocent in criminal court but at-fault in civil court is the O.J. Simpson murder case. Continue reading about the differences between civil vs. criminal law.

Additional parties who may be liable in a sexual abuse case

In addition to the perpetrator, third parties may be liable in sexual abuse cases.

Under state common law, if a person fails to exercise “reasonable care” and someone is injured as a result, the person who failed to exercise reasonable care can be sued for negligence.

When it comes to sexual abuse, there are a number of third parties who may also be liable:

  • School officials
  • Coaches
  • Employers
  • Property owners
  • Doctors
Real Life Example:The victims of Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, reached a $380 million settlement with USA Gymnastics (USAG) and U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) after a 5-year legal battle.

The victims, which include Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and McKayla Maroney, alleged that USOG failed to take reasonable steps to protect them from Larry Nassar.

Learn more about the gymnastics lawsuit and settlement.

Damages available in a sexual abuse case

Sexual abuse can take a physical and emotional toll that often lasts a lifetime. Although it’s impossible to make a person “whole” following an act of abuse, the law typically allows victims to recover economic and non-economic damages in an effort to do so:

  • Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by the abuse. Economic damages may include medical expenses (for physical and mental health treatment) and lost wages if the victim missed time from work as a result of the abuse.
  • Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary damages caused by the abuse. Non-economic damages may include pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of consortium, and emotional distress.
  • Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant. Punitive damages are only available in certain states under certain narrow circumstances.

According to a study published by the CDC, the average lifetime cost of rape is $122,461 per person. To arrive at this number, the study considered costs like criminal justice-related expenditures, lost work productivity, and the cost of health conditions linked to rape victimization.

Real Life Example:More than 82,000 boy scouts sued the Boy Scouts of America for sexual abuses committed by scoutmasters. The lawsuits allege that the organization institutionalized child molestation and protected the perpetrators.

In February 2020, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, intending to use the proceeding to set up a fund to compensate survivors. Presently, the fund includes almost $1.9 billion.

Under the plan, victims could receive as little as $3,500, or as much as $60,000.

For the judge to approve the bankruptcy plan, a majority of plaintiffs must vote in favor of the bankruptcy and compensation plan. The votes were tallied by January 4, 2022. The judge scheduled a hearing on January 24, 2022, to consider the results and decide whether to approve the bankruptcy plan.

“I don't feel there's any cosmic calculation that is going to equal the damage that I've endured,” said 1 survivor. “But I think what we want is to see constructive changes in the Boy Scouts of America. And the only way you can do this is by winning damages.”

Statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases

The term statute of limitations refers to the amount of time a person has to file a lawsuit.

When it comes to sexual abuse cases, each state has its own time limit. In most cases, the clock starts ticking from the moment the abuse occurs. However, many states toll (or pause) the clock if the victim is a minor.

If a victim fails to file a lawsuit within the time limit set by the statute of limitations, their claim will be forever barred.

In the following chart, we’ll look at the sexual abuse statute of limitations for each state, along with any special tolling or extensions the state may have.

Civil sexual abuse statutes of limitations by state
State Statute Time limit Tolling
Alabama Ala. Code § 6-2-38 and Ala. Code § 13A-6-158 2 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Alaska Alaska Stat. § 09-10-065 and Alaska Stat. § 09.10.140 3 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Arizona A.R.S. § 12- 542(1) 2 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Arkansas Ark. Code § 16-56-130(a) 3 years Tolled until the minor turns 18 or the abuse is discovered
California Ca. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1 3 years Within 8 years of the time the minor turns 18, or within 3 years of discovery
Colorado Colo. Rev. Stat. § §13-80-102 (a) 2 years Within 6 years of the time the minor turns 18
Connecticut Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-577e No time limit for sexual assault or aggravated sexual assault; 3 years for all else 30 years from the time the minor turns 18
Delaware Del. Code tit. 10, § 8119 2 years No time limit for child sex abuse cases
District of Columbia D.C. Code § 12-301(11) 3 years Within 7 years of the time the minor turns 18
Florida Fla. Stat. § 95.11(7), (9) 4 years after leaving the dependency of the abuser; 8 years for a 1st or 2nd-degree felony sexual battery; no limit for sexual battery involving a minor under 16 years old; no limit in 1st or 2nd-degree felony sexual battery cases reported to authorities within 72 hours Within 7 years of the time the minor turns 18
Georgia O.C.G.A. § 9-3- 33.1(b) 2 years Within 5 years of the time the minor turns 18
Hawaii HRS § 657-7 and HRS § 657-13 2 years Tolled until the time the minor turns 18
Idaho Idaho Code § 6-1704(1) 2 years Within 5 years of the time the minor turns 18
Illinois Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 735, § 13--202, § 13—202.2(b) 2 years No time limitation if abuse occured when victim was a minor
Indiana Ind. Code § 34-11-2-4(1) 2 years Within 7 years of the date of the incident if the victim was a minor at the time of the abuse
Iowa Iowa Code §669.13, §614.8A 2 years Within 1 year of the time the minor turns 18
Kansas Kan. Stat. § 60-523 2 years Within 3 years of the time the minor turns 18
Kentucky Ky. Rev. Stat. § 413.249, §413.140(1)(a) 1 year Within 5 years of the time the minor turns 18
Louisiana Louisiana Revised Statute 9:2800.9(A), Civ. Code §3492 1 year Within 10 years of the time the minor turns 18
Maine Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 14, § 752-C 2 years No time limitation for abuse that occurs when the victim is a minor
Maryland Md. Cts. and Jud. Proc. § 5-117 3 years Within 7 years of the time the minor turns 18
Massachusetts Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 4C 3 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Michigan MCL 600.5805 2 years None
Minnesota Minn. Stat. § 541.073 6 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Mississippi Miss. Code Ann. §15-1-49, § 15-1-59 3 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Missouri Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.046 5 years Within 10 years of the minor turning 21
Montana Mont. Code § 27-2-216(a), 27-2-401 3 years Within 5 years of the minor turning 18
Nebraska Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-208 4 years Within 4 years of the minor turning 21
Nevada Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 11.215 2 years Within 10 years of the minor turning 18
New Hampshire N.H. Rev. Stat. § 508:4-9 3 years Within 12 years of the minor turning 18
New Jersey N.J. Stat. § 2A:61B-1 2 years None
New Mexico N.M. Code § 37-1-30 3 years By the time the minor turns 24
New York New York Civil Practice Law and Rules 213-c 5 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
North Carolina N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-32.3 3 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
North Dakota N.D. Cent. Code § 28-01-25.1 2 years Within 10 years of the date of discovery for minors
Ohio ORC Ann. § 2305.111(c) 2 years Within 12 years of the minor turning 18
Oklahoma Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 95 2 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Oregon ORS § 124.005 2 years Within 6 years of the minor turning 18
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Code 42 Pa. CSA 5533(b)(2), 2 years Within 12 years of the minor turning 18
Rhode Island R.I. Gen. Laws § 9- 1-51 3 years Within 7 years from the incident for minors
South Carolina S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-555 3 years Within 6 years of the minor turning 21
South Dakota S.D. Codified Laws § 26-10-25 3 years None
Tennessee Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104, 28-1-106 1 year Tolled until the minor turns 18
Texas Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.0045 2-5 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Utah Utah Code Ann. § 78B-2-308 4 years No time limitation if abuse occurred when victim was a minor
Vermont Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 522 3 years Within 6 years of the time of discovery if a minor when abuse occurred
Virginia Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-243 2 years Tolled until the minor turns 18
Washington Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.340 3 years Tolled until the minor turns 18

 

Enjuris tip:Keep in mind that a state’s statute of limitation can be changed by state legislatures. We strongly recommend that you meet with an attorney in your state before deciding whether you still have time to file a lawsuit.

Federal sexual abuse claims and the federal statute of limitations

If your abuser violated a federal law, you may be able to sue them in federal court.

Certain federal laws outlined in 18 U.S. Code 2255, which include human trafficking and the distribution of child pornography, allow child sexual abuse survivors to file a civil lawsuit in federal court up to the age of 28 (or 10 years from the date of the crime or discovery of an injury resulting from the abuse).

What to do if you’ve been sexually abused

Depending on your situation, there are 5 steps you should consider taking after an incident of sexual abuse:

  • Step 1: Get to a safe place. Whether it’s the nearest hospital, a police station, or someone’s home, your safety and well-being should be your first priority.
  • Step 2: Reach out for support. Once you’re physically safe, it’s important to connect with a person you trust for support. If you don’t have someone you can reach out to or if you prefer to receive support anonymously, consider contacting a crisis hotline, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
  • Step 3: Seek medical attention. It’s ultimately up to you whether you want to seek medical attention in the aftermath of abuse. According to Jessica Klein, senior lecturer in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness, choosing to go to a hospital or a medical rape center can be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, healthcare practitioners can treat any injuries and ensure your sexual and physical health. Second, health care practitioners can provide you with a rape kit that can be used to collect evidence should you choose to file a civil or criminal complaint.
Enjuris tip:In most institutions, the window for collecting bodily forensic evidence through a rape kit is just 72 hours. Survivors of sexual assault are encouraged to avoid showering, combing their hair, using a restroom, or changing their clothes before completing a rape kit.
  • Step 4: Call 9-1-1. Many survivors are reluctant to contact the police after suffering abuse. If you choose to contact the police, ask to fill out a police report and request that a criminal investigation begin.
  • Step 5: Consider your legal options. You may want to apply for a temporary protection order to keep the offender away from you. This can be done with or without a lawyer. If you’re considering filing a civil lawsuit, it’s a good idea to sit down with an attorney. Most initial consultations are free.

If you are in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1. If you need immediate support, please consider contacting the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. If you’re ready to talk to an attorney about a possible civil claim, you can use our free online directory.

 

Connect to top-rated lawyers in seconds using our comprehensive national directory

Find your State
AL AK AZ AR CA CO CT DE DC FL GA HI ID IL IN IA KS KY LA ME MD MA MI MN MS MO MT NE NV NH NJ NM NY NC ND OH OK OR PA RI SC SD TN TX UT VT VA WA WV WI WY

 

Downloads:
Free personal injury guides for download to print or save. View all downloads.

Tell your story:
Tell your story - What would you want others to know? Tell us what happened in your accident, and how life has changed for you.

Find an attorney:
Search our directory for personal injury law firms.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.