A lawsuit for sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or sexual assault by doctors is a common type of personal injury claim. It can be filed against the doctor, as well as the doctor’s employer. The lawsuit often happens during or after criminal charges against the doctor. Because it is a civil lawsuit, rather than a criminal charge, it demands compensation for the victim.
These lawsuits can also demand punitive damages be assessed against the doctor or their employer.
In this article, our California personal injury lawyers explain:
- 1. What are lawsuits against doctors for sexual assault, abuse, or harassment?
- 2. How are these civil lawsuits different from criminal charges?
- 3. How can a lawsuit for a doctor’s sexual assault implicate their employer?
- 4. How long do I have to file a lawsuit against a doctor for sexual assault?
- 5. What kind of compensation is available?
1. What are lawsuits against doctors for sexual assault, abuse, or harassment?
A lawsuit against a doctor for
- sexual assault,
- sexual abuse, or
- sexual harassment
is a personal injury claim brought by the victim. The lawsuit can also be brought on behalf of the victim.
These claims are a form of crime victim lawsuits. They follow sex crimes perpetrated by the victim’s doctor or healthcare provider. In California, these crimes include:
- Statutory rape,
- Sexual battery or assault,
- Indecent exposure,
- Oral copulation by force,
- Forcible penetration with a foreign object, and
- Child sexual abuse.
By filing a lawsuit against their doctor, the victim of the doctor’s sex crime can recover restitution. This restitution aims to pay for the victim’s losses and experiences to make them whole.
1.1. Who can file a sexual assault lawsuit against a doctor?
Victims can file lawsuits on their own behalf. Other people, often the victim’s family members, can file a lawsuit against the victim’s doctor in some cases. Witnesses can also file a lawsuit.
Anyone who has been the victim of the following crimes can file a lawsuit against the doctor who hurt them:
- Statutory rape,
- Sexual assault,
- Sexual battery or groping,
- Nonconsensual sex or touching,
- Indecent exposure, or
- Child sex abuse.
In addition to the victim filing the suit, there are some situations where other people can also file a lawsuit, including:
- Witnesses may have a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the doctor,
- Spouses or domestic partners can add a loss of consortium element to a victim’s lawsuit for the losses they have suffered, and
- Family members or legal heirs may file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a victim who has passed away.
1.2. What are examples of lawsuits against doctors for sexual assault?
There are numerous examples of doctors facing civil lawsuits for sexually assaulting patients. Some of these are the results of skilled investigative journalism, while others come from the fallout of the #MeToo movement. Some of the most well known include:
- USC gynecologist George Tyndall. He worked at the college for almost 30 years, and has now been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of female patients. Over 700 sexual assault lawsuits have been filed against him and the University of Southern California,1
- MSU sports physician Larry Nassar. His work included caring for members of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastic Olympic team. 332 women filed lawsuits against him and Michigan State University,2 and
- USC doctor Dennis Kelly. He has been accused of sexually abusing 48 gay and bisexual men during medical exams.3
2. How are these civil lawsuits different from criminal charges?
Civil lawsuits for a doctor’s sexual assault or abuse are different from criminal charges that the doctor can face. The two different cases can be confusing, especially because they often move forward at the same time.
The most important differences between the two are:
|Civil Case Against Doctor||Criminal Charge Against Doctor|
|Who pursues the case?||Victim, or someone on behalf of the victim||Prosecutor|
|What is the focus of the case?||Compensating victims||Punishing wrongdoers|
|What happens if the doctor loses?||Victim recovers compensation||Doctor pays fines to the state and likely goes to jail|
|What is the burden of proof?||Preponderance of the evidence||Beyond a reasonable doubt|
2.1. Focus is on compensation rather than punishment
Likely the biggest difference between a civil and a criminal case against a doctor for sexual abuse is the focus of the case.
In civil cases, the focus is on compensating victims for their terrible experiences and losses.
In criminal cases, the focus is on punishing wrongdoers for their bad acts.
This difference manifests itself in what happens at the end of the case. Successful civil lawsuits make the doctor pay compensation to the victim. Successful criminal cases send the doctor to jail.
Victims of a doctor’s sexual misconduct do benefit from a successful criminal conviction. They get to see their doctor go to jail and pay for their crimes. However, criminal convictions rarely lead to meaningful restitution for victims. Victims need this compensation to overcome the difficulties they have had to endure.
2.2. A lower standard of proof
Civil lawsuits for a doctor’s sexual assaults also have to overcome a lower standard of proof.
Criminal cases have to show that the doctor committed a sex crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is often said to require 98% certainty that the doctor committed sexual assault.
Civil lawsuits only have to show that the doctor committed sexual misconduct by a preponderance of the evidence. It means you only have to show that the sexual assault more likely occurred than not. It is often said to require only 51% certainty.
2.3. How criminal charges influence civil lawsuits
Criminal charges against a doctor for sexual abuse, harassment, or assault can influence a civil lawsuit for the same conduct.
If a doctor gets convicted on a criminal charge, the civil lawsuit becomes very easy. A jury who has found the doctor guilty can be used as evidence in the civil claim.
Evidence gathered by prosecutors can also be used to strengthen a civil lawsuit.
If the jury in the criminal case acquits the doctor, it can weaken the civil case. However, it does not doom your civil lawsuit. You can still win.
3. How can a lawsuit for a doctor’s sexual assault implicate their employer?
A big part of a civil lawsuit over a doctor’s sexual assault is implicating their employer. This can be a doctor’s:
- Office, or
- College or university.
Implicating a doctor’s employer is important because holding the doctor personally liable is unlikely to recover the compensation you deserve. By holding their employer liable, as well, you can recover the full amount of compensation you need.
Sex assault lawsuits against doctors can hold the doctor’s employer liable under two legal theories:
- Negligent hiring or supervision, or
- Vicarious liability, also known as respondeat superior.
3.1. Negligent hiring or supervision
You can argue that the doctor’s employer should be held liable because they negligently hired or supervised the doctor. To succeed on this claim in California, you have to show:
- The doctor was unfit for the job they were hired to do,
- The doctor’s employer should have known that the doctor was a risk to patients,
- The doctor’s unfitness was what hurt you, and
- The employer’s negligent hiring, supervising, or retaining was a substantial factor in causing your harm.4
By showing that the employer created a particular risk or hazard by hiring or keeping the doctor, you can extend liability to them.5 The fact that the doctor’s sexual assault was intentional does not absolve the employer.6
Example: Sexual assault victims sued both Larry Nassar and his employer, Michigan State University. The victims showed that the school was aware of Nassar’s conduct. MSU settled the lawsuits for $500 million.7
3.2. Vicarious liability or respondeat superior
You can also argue that the employer should be held vicariously liable for the doctor’s sexual abuse. This argument uses the legal idea of respondeat superior, which is Latin for “let the boss answer.” It claims that the employer should be held responsible because the doctor was on the job.
Vicarious liability is a more difficult argument to make. Employers are rarely held liable for the crimes of their employees.8 These crimes are often said to fall outside the scope of the doctor’s employment.
4. How long do I have to file a lawsuit against a doctor for sexual assault?
Different states have widely different statutes of limitations for sexual assault lawsuits against doctors. Most make a distinction between adults who were sexual abused and children. Children are often given far longer to sue.
In California, adults typically have 2 years from the date of the assault to file a civil lawsuit.9 The only exception to this is if the doctor was later convicted for a felony sex crime. This opens a 1-year window beginning on the day of the judgment for a lawsuit to be filed.10
People who were assaulted as children, on the other hand, have until the later of:
- Their 26th birthday, or
- 3 years after discovering that a psychological illness that occurred after the victim turned 18 was the result of sexual abuse.11
5. What kind of compensation is available?
Lawsuits against doctors for sexual harassment, abuse, or assault can recover compensatory damages. These aim to cover the victim’s:
- Medical bills, including the costs of caring for and treating emotional and mental trauma from the incident,
- Wages lost during the recovery process,
- Earning capacity lost from the assault,
- Physical pain,
- Mental suffering and anguish,
- Loss of life’s enjoyments,
- Other financial losses associated with the assault and your recovery, and
- Loss of consortium for the victim’s family.
5.1. Can the doctor be made to pay punitive damages?
Many lawsuits against doctors for sexual assault also demand punitive damages. An award of punitive damages forces the responsible parties to pay more than what it would take to compensate you. Punitive damages are awarded to punish doctors and employers for especially bad behavior.
Call us for help…
If you have been sexually assaulted or raped by your doctor, filing a lawsuit can be a big part of your recovery. Criminal charges – even if they lead to a conviction – will not compensate you for what you have been put through. A civil lawsuit can. Call our California personal injury lawyers today to get started on your case. You can also contact us online.
- See Stafanie Dazio, “Longtime USC gynecologist George Tyndall charged in sex assaults of 16 women: ‘It was time to seek justice,’” USA Today (June 26, 2019), and Jill Cowan, “Former U.S.C. Gynecologist Arrested in Sex Abuse Case,” The New York Times (June 26, 2019).
- See Tim Evans, Mark Alesia, and Marisa Kwiatkowski, “Former USA Gymnastics doctor accused of abuse,” The Indianapolis Star (September 12, 2016).
- See Ian Spiegelman, “Another USC Doctor Is Being Accused of Sexually Abusing Students,” Los Angeles Magazine (August 8, 2019).
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 426.
- Phillips v. TLC Plumbing, Inc., 91 Cal.Rptr.3d 864 (Cal. App. 2009).
- Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc., 168 Cal.Rptr.3d 123 (Cal. App. 2014).
- Eric Levenson, “Michigan State University reaches $500 million settlement with Larry Nassar victims,” CNN (May 17, 2018).
- Lisa M. v. Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, 907 P.2d 358 (Cal. 1995).
- California Code of Civil Procedure. 335.1.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 340.3.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 340.1.