Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse can sue the perpetrators for damages. Any type of sex crime can serve as the basis for a sexual assault civil lawsuit, including:
- Sexual abuse of a child,
- Groping (sexual battery),
- Indecent exposure,
- Sexual assault by rideshare drivers,
- Sexual assault by doctors or physicians, or
- Any other non-consensual act of a sexual nature.
If you are the victim of sexual assault, you may be entitled to a large amount of money in damages for:
- Medical bills,
- Psychological counseling,
- Lost wages,
- Lost earning capacity,
- Pain and suffering (including traumatic stress),
- Loss of enjoyment of life,
- Anxiety, and/or
- Emotional distress or trauma.
To help you better understand the process of suing someone for sexual assault, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following, below:
- 1. Who can sue for sexual assault, abuse or battery?
- 2. Do I need to file criminal charges or can I just file a lawsuit?
- 3. What is the burden of proof in a civil lawsuit for sexual assault?
- 4. How long do I have to bring a civil lawsuit?
- 5. Can another party be held responsible?
- 6. What are defenses to civil charges of sexual assault?
- 7. Can I recover punitive damages in a sexual assault lawsuit?
- 8. Can I be sued for defamation if I sue someone for a sex crime?
- 9. What should I do if I suspect that someone has assaulted or abused my child?
- 10. What should I do if I have been raped?
- Additional resources
If you have been the victim of unwanted touching or an unwanted sexual act, you can sue for damages.
Families of victims may also be able to sue for:
- negligent infliction of emotional distress if they witnessed the assault;
- wrongful death or a survivor’s action if the victim died; or
- loss of consortium if the assault resulted in a loss of companionship, moral support and/or intimacy to a spouse or registered domestic partner.
California law does not require a criminal conviction or even a police report for you to sue for damages following a sexual assault.
In a civil lawsuit for sexual assault, nine of the 12 jurors must find by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the defendant sexually assaulted or abused you. In other words, that it is “more likely than not” that the defendant is liable.
This is a much lower burden of proof than in a criminal trial, where the prosecution must convince all 12 jurors “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you are guilty.
Because civil lawsuits have a lower burden of proof than criminal trials, it is possible that you could win a sexual assault lawsuit even if the perpetrator is acquitted in the criminal case.
If you were an adult at the time of a sexual assault, you have a two-year time limit from the date of the assault to sue for damages in the civil court system.1 However, if felony criminal charges are brought and the defendant is convicted, you have one year from the date on which the judgment is pronounced to file suit – even if the claim would otherwise be time-barred.2
If you are a victim of childhood sexual assault or abuse, you may file a lawsuit in California until the later of:
- Your 40th birthday, or
- 5 years from when you discover, or reasonably should have discovered, that a psychological injury or illness that occurred after you turned 18 was, in fact, caused by the sexual assault or abuse (“delayed discovery”).3
Yes. Anyone whose negligence may have contributed to your sexual assault occurring may be held liable.
Example: Several of the residents in Jane’s apartment complex complain to the management that the locks to the building are broken. Management ignores the reports. Jane is later sexually assaulted in the garage. She sues the building owner and property liability insurer and recovers $500,000 in damages.
Example: Susan, a student at a public university, is sexually assaulted by a faculty member. She files suit under Title 9 based on the school’s policies that enabled the campus sexual assault to take place.
Common defenses to civil charges of sexual assault include:
- The defendant did not do it (you are lying or mistaken);
- No sexual act took place; or
- The encounter was consensual.4
Even consent has limits. If the defendant went outside the boundaries of what was consented to – such as not using a condom when you told them to – it may count as sexual assault.5
Yes. State law under California Civil Code 3294 allows you to recover punitive damages if you prove the defendant acted with
- fraud, or
Possibly. Potential defamation claims are just one reason why going to the police after an assault can be advantageous, even if charges are never brought. At the very least, it can help you tell someone right away and, in cases of rape, undergo rape kit testing.
We also advise you not to post on social media details of an alleged sexual assault that would identify the perpetrator. Focus instead on how the encounter made you feel.
Alternatively, you can contact California’s Child Protective Services Agency to report the abuse.
You can also call the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at (1-800) 4-A-Child (800.422.4453).
RAINN offers tips on “steps you can take after sexual assault.” The most important things are to seek immediate help and to preserve evidence, even if you do not think you will want to
- press charges or
- file a lawsuit for damages.
You may change your mind later.
For more information, see our related articles:
- Sexual abuse v. sexual assault – the difference between the terms “sexual abuse” and “sexual assault”
- How to apply for victim restitution from a California criminal court – instructions for crime victims on how to recover monetary losses
- How to prepare to testify as a witness at trial – tips for anyone set to take the witness stand
- Lawsuits by crime victims – overview of how crime victims may bring a civil lawsuit whether or not there is a criminal charge pending
- California’s rape shield law – how in criminal cases, the victim’s sexual past is usually inadmissible as evidence
- California Code of Civil Procedure. 335.1.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 340.3.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 340.1; California Assembly Bill 218 (2019); Patrick McGreevy, “California grants more time for filing child sexual abuse allegations under new law“, LA Times (Oct. 13, 2019). If you were a child victim and file suit over the age of 40, you will need to obtain certificates of merits from: A mental health professional who has not treated you, stating that there is a valid reason why you could not have discovered the harm sooner, and Your attorney, stating that the lawyer has reviewed the case and the findings of the mental health professional and determined that a claim is meritorious.
- Civil Code section 3515. See also Rains v. Superior Court (1984) 150 Cal.App.3d 933 (“The element of lack of consent to the particular contact is an essential element of battery”).
- Ashcraft v. King (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 604.
- Civil Code section 1708.5.
- See also California Civil Code 1708.5 on sexual battery.