Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse have the ability to sue the perpetrators for damages. Any type of sex crime can serve as the basis for a civil lawsuit. Common acts that lead to sexual assault lawsuits include:
- 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.
It is not necessary that the defendant be convicted of a crime first or even charged with one. As long as you suffered damages as the result of a non-consensual act, you can file suit.
If you are the victim of sexual assault, you may be entitled to both compensatory damages and punitive damages. You may seek to recover 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.
Your spouses and registered domestic partners may also be able to sue for loss of consortium (if they have suffered a loss of companionship, moral support and/or intimacy as a result of the perpetrator’s actions).
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?
You may also wish to read our article on “Lawsuits by Crime Victims.”
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 if:
- They witnessed the assault, in which case they may have an action for negligent infliction of emotional distress;
- The assault or abuse resulted in the victim’s death, in which case the victim’s family or heirs may be able to bring a suit for wrongful death or a survivor’s action on behalf of the victim’s estate; or
- The assault resulted in a loss of companionship, moral support and/or intimacy to a spouse or registered domestic partner (loss of consortium).
California law does not require a criminal conviction or even a police report for you to sue for damages.
You may be afraid to report the crime to law enforcement. You may fear that no one will believe you or that you will be blamed for what happened.
Most police officers in California will treat you with dignity. An investigation is often helpful, even if no criminal charges get filed.
It can help turn up evidence that might be useful in a lawsuit. Plus, going to the police can help bolster your credibility in the civil case.
We know that you may get discouraged when you report a sexual assault and the District Attorney elects not to
- pursue criminal prosecution or
- take the criminal case to trial and accepts a plea bargain to a lesser charge.
Or you may have experienced the assault or abuse too long ago to make a good case.
Just because the prosecutor would not bring charges or could not secure a conviction, this does not necessarily mean you should not bring a civil suit.
With a civil lawsuit, you are actually a party to the proceedings. You get to decide
- whether to move forward and
- whether or not to settle a case out of court.
Because there is a lower burden of proof in a civil case, the case may still be viable.
In a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This can be difficult to do in sexual assault cases, where consent or lack of it is often difficult to prove.
Though in a civil lawsuit, you need only establish liability by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that the jury must simply determine that it is “more likely than not” that the defendant sexually assaulted or abused you.
This does not mean that you will automatically win if there is a “he said / she said” situation. Though it does mean that the jury can find the defendant liable if it finds it even a little more likely (51%) that your version of what happened is true.
Moreover, in a criminal trial, all 12 jurors must agree on the defendant’s guilt in order to sustain a conviction.
In a civil trial, on the other hand, it takes just nine of the 12 jurors to agree that the defendant is liable.
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
Note that this is often a shorter period than the statute of limitations for prosecuting the defendant’s actions as a crime.
If you do not file your lawsuit within this two-year period, you may lose your right to sue, even if the defendant is eventually prosecuted.
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 which occurred after you turned 18 was, in fact, caused by the sexual assault or abuse (“delayed discovery”).3
If you are 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.
Because the mental health professional must examine you, and the lawyer must review that person’s findings and the factual basis for the suit, it may take some time to get the required certification.
The five-year “delayed discovery” is not tolled (suspended) during this period.
Therefore, if you are or will be 40 soon, you should contact a California injury lawyer as soon as possible to prevent your claim from becoming time-barred.
When we think of sexual assault, we usually think in terms of a victim and a perpetrator.
This means that if a sexual assault occurred because of someone else’s negligence, that party may be 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: Lyle goes to a hardcore punk concert with his older brother. While he is there he is harassed by a group of kids who question his sexuality. Some of the other boys stick their hands down his pants and grope him to “see if he really is a man.” Lyle is humiliated. He sues the concert promoter because its failure to hire adequate security led to Lyle being sexually battered.
Example: Kevin’s daughter attends a school for special needs children. He determines that one of the teacher’s aides has been exposing himself to his daughter. Kevin’s California personal injury attorney learns that the school did not conduct a proper background check on the aide. Kevin brings suit against the school and the school district for damages and an injunction forcing the district to change its hiring practices.
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 (but are not limited to):
- The defendant did not do it (you are lying or mistaken);
- The lawsuit is filed too late (and thus barred by the statute of limitations);
- 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, it may still count as sexual assault.
For instance, you may agree to sex but require that the other person use a condom. If the other person proceeds to have unprotected sex, or otherwise exceeds the boundaries of consent, it may constitute 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
Punitive damages serve “for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”
Civil Code 3294(c) (1) provides:
(1) “Malice” means conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.
(2) “Oppression” means despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.
(3) “Fraud” means an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact known to the defendant with the intention on the part of the defendant of thereby depriving a person of property or legal rights or otherwise causing injury.
This definition often applies in sexual assault cases because the defendant has usually acted with a willful disregard of your rights.6
Unfortunately, yes, although suits for harm to reputation are less common in the context of a lawsuit by the victim of a crime. Defamation claims in California are more common than when posting a story on social media (for instance, as part of the #MeToo movement).
This is 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 details of an alleged sexual assault on social media, tempting though it may be. If you want to participate, we recommend not disclosing specifics that would identify the perpetrator. Focus instead on how the encounter made you feel.
A lawyer can help you assess the risk of a suit and whether suing for damages is the best approach for dealing with your pain.
Alternatively, you can contact California’s Child Protective Services Agency to report the abuse.
The agency provides services to children and their families when children are victims of, or at risk of,
- exploitation, or
- parental absence.
You can also call the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at (1-800) 4-A-Child (800.422.4453). The hotline is staffed 24/7.
Our office also offers consultations to discuss possible claims for civil damages in case of childhood sexual abuse.
RAINN offers tips on “steps you can take after sexual assault”. Their website includes information on:
- Receiving medical attention
- Reporting options
- Getting a rape kit done.
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. Having the evidence preserved can give you some peace of mind knowing that you are not locked into a decision.
Were you a victim of sexual assault or abuse?
If you or a loved one has been a victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault, we invite you to contact our California personal injury lawyers for a consultation on a possible lawsuit. We will fight for the largest amount of monetary compensation available in your case.
We bring legal actions throughout the state, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and more.
You may also find helpful information on our pages on how to apply for victim restitution from a California criminal court, or prepare to testify as a witness at trial.
In Nevada? See our article about lawsuits by rape victims in Nevada.
- 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).
- 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.