Victims of crime: When can a lawsuit be filed?

The law allows victims of crimes several ways to recover compensation for their losses. Victims (or in some cases, their family members) may:

Victims do not need to choose one approach over the other. They can pursue any or all of these remedies.

Of the three, CalVCP payments are the most limited. We deal with them in a separate article, linked to above. 

As between a civil lawsuit and vicitm restitution, however, each has its advantages and disadvantages. They are indicated in the following chart (and discussed in detail below): 



Criminal conviction not necessary

Criminal conviction or plea required

Victim controls the case

Case is brought by the prosecutor

Victim pays own attorneys

No cost to victim for restitution

9 or 12 jurors can find liability

All 12 jurors must agree on guilt

Lower burden of proof

Very high burden of proof

Perpetrator must testify if called as witness

Perpetrator not required to testify

Non-economic damages recoverable

Pain & suffering covered only if victim treated

Punitive damages available

No punitive damages possible

Other parties may also be liable

The defendant must be convicted

Family members may be able to sue

Limited to victim except when victim killed

Note that any crime can serve as a basis for restitution or a civil lawsuit. In theory, restitution is a quicker remedy because the court orders it when the defendant is sentenced. But it requires a criminal conviction.

Do civil lawsuits require a criminal conviction?

A civil lawsuit does not require a conviction. Nor does it even require that the defendant is charged with a crime. Also, there may be other parties besides the defendant who can be named in the lawsuit. For instance:

Common civil lawsuits filed by victims of crime include (but are not limited to):

To help you better understand how crime victims can obtain compensation, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

back of male lawyer as he talks to jurors in jury box

1. The difference between a civil lawsuit and a criminal trial

The purpose of a criminal trial is:

  • To determine the guilt of the accused and,
  • If the accused is convicted, to impose an appropriate punishment.

The victim is not a party in a criminal trial. While the victim's wishes may be taken into account, he or she has no right to control the prosecution. It is the district attorney who decides whether to bring charges or accept a plea bargain.

A civil lawsuit, on the other hand, exists to make the victim (or sometimes the victim's family) as whole as possible. It compensates the victim and/or the victim's family for losses such as:

2. The difference between civil damages and restitution

The major difference between restitution and the damages obtained in a civil lawsuit is the process for obtaining them.

Victim restitution in criminal cases

In a criminal prosecution, the victim submits bills to the prosecution. The prosecutor then presents the figures to the defense and the court. The judge ultimately decides how much victim restitution to award.

Money damages in civil lawsuits

In a civil suit, on the other hand, the victim must bring the case and prove liability and damages by a preponderance of the evidence. This can often be a lengthy process. It can sometimes take years to reach a final resolution if a trial is required or the defendant appeals.

Criminal victim restitution, on the other hand, is typically ordered at the time of -- or soon after -- a defendant's sentencing. Defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. This means restitution, at least in theory, can be obtained more quickly than damages from a California civil lawsuit.

3. Is there a cost to seek restitution or file a civil lawsuit?

There is no fee to apply for victim restitution in a criminal case. Bills are submitted through the prosecutor, who is paid by the government. 

In a civil lawsuit, by contrast, the victim must almost always hire an attorney. Civil attorneys usually charge a contingency fee. Their fee is typically between 30 and 40% of the total amount recovered in the lawsuit.

A civil suit may still result in a larger award than restitution, however. Civil courts can award pain and suffering and punitive damages. Additionally, many lawyers (including us) take no money unless the victim wins at trial or settles out of court.

Note that in either case, a victim may need to hire a private attorney to help collect a civil judgement or criminal restitution order (as discussed in section 10, below).

In civil cases, plaintiffs are entitled to interest on any unpaid portion of the judgment. They may also be able to amend the judgment.

In the case of restitution, costs of collection may be added to the restitution amount.

Your California injury lawyer can help you discover a defendant's assets and assess the best means of collection.

4. Does the perpetrator need to be found guilty in a criminal trial for a victim to sue?

No. A defendant can be held liable in a civil lawsuit even though he or she was found “not guilty” of the crime. A notable example is O.J. Simpson who was acquitted in the 1994 murder of his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

The families of the victims later brought a wrongful death suit against Simpson. The jury found Simpson liable for $8 million in compensatory damages. The judge later added another $25 million in punitive damages.

Simpson was ordered to pay the $33 million in damages even though he had been found "not guilty" at trial. And, in fact, the families could have brought suit even if Simpson had never been charged.

However, it still makes sense in most cases for the victim of a crime to report it to the police. A police investigation may turn up evidence that can be used in a civil trial.

And in the case of certain serious felony crimes, if a prosecutor does secure a conviction, the conviction can be used as the basis for a lawsuit.1

young woman making report to young policeman
It is not necessary to file a police report in order to sue for a crime in California

5. The standard of proof in a civil lawsuit

A key difference between civil and criminal proceedings is the "burden of proof." In a criminal trial, the accused must be found guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In a civil trial, the standard for liability is a “preponderance of the evidence.” This simply means that the jury believes it is more likely than not that the defendant did what the plaintiff claims.

In addition, all 12 jurors must agree on a defendant's guilt in a criminal trial. In a civil lawsuit, only nine of 12 jurors need to find the defendant liable in order for the victim to be awarded damages.

6. What kinds of crime can a victim sue for?

Almost any type of crime can serve as the basis for a lawsuit. The keys to a successful lawsuit for a criminal act are whether:

  1. The victim suffered damages, and
  2. The defendant (or another liable party) has enough assets to compensate the victim.

That said, certain types of crimes are particularly suited to civil actions. They include (but are by no means limited to):

  • Arson,
  • Assault and battery,
  • Assault with a deadly weapon,
  • Child abuse or neglect,
  • Criminal threats,
  • Domestic violence,
  • DUI with injury,
  • Elder abuse,
  • False imprisonment,
  • Fraud,
  • Hate crimes,
  • Human trafficking,
  • Incest,
  • Nursing home abuse,
  • Rape,
  • Robbery,
  • Sex trafficking,
  • Sexual Assault,
  • Stalking,
  • Terrorism,
  • Vehicular manslaughter or homicide, and
  • White collar crimes.

7. Who can sue for the commission of a crime?

Generally, only the victim can sue the defendant for a crime.

Sometimes, however, family members can also bring suit. Family members most likely to prevail are spouses, registered domestic partners and children of the victim. To bring suit, the family members must have suffered harm such as:

Families of violent crime survivors who need help with expenses may also be able to obtain them through the CalVCP program, even if they do not have a basis to sue.

8. What other parties can be held civilly liable for a crime?

Anyone who violates a duty of care In California is liable for damages caused by their negligence. As a result, sometimes someone other than the perpetrator may be legally liable for damages to a crime victim.

Suing an employer for the acts if its employees

Employers, for instance, may be legally required to conduct a background check on a potential hire. Or they may be on notice about complaints about sexual harassment. In such a case, if the employer fails to take appropriate action, the employer can be held liable under California's law on negligent hiring, retention or supervision of an employee.

Suing a business for allowing an unsafe condition

In other cases, a company, such as a hotel or a restaurant, may have violated a duty of care to keep property safe under California's premises liability laws. If someone becomes a victim of a crime due to broken doors or cameras or similar hazards, the company may be liable.

Examples of situations in which someone other than the perpetrator may be liable include (but are not limited to):

  • Someone is sexually assaulted in an office parking lot that has inadequate lighting;
  • A bouncer at a concert physically assaults someone he thinks was trying to sneak in;
  • A ride-sharing driver with a recent DUI conviction drives drunk and kills someone;
  • A school district ignores complaints about a teacher who then abuses a child.
scared child hiding her head and holding her hand up in "stop" gesture

9. How long do crime victims have to file a civil suit?

9.1. General statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits

California's statute of limitations in most personal injury cases is two years. This two-year period applies to claims such as assault, battery and wrongful death.2

But crime victims often have a shorter or longer period in which to sue. A partial list of crimes with different statutes of limitations is set forth below.

Because the issue of the statute of limitations is such a critical and complicated one, we advise any victim of a crime to contact an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible after the crime.

9.2. Childhood sexual assault or abuse

California "statute of limitations" for childhood sexual abuse allows victims to bring suit for the abuse at any time before the victim's 26th birthday.

But California also has a "delayed discovery" rule in childhood sexual assault and abuse cases that can give victims a longer time period in which to file suit.

California's "delayed discovery" rule for childhood sexual abuse

Under the delayed discovery rule, a victim can sue for childhood sexual abuse for up to three years after:

The victim discovers that a psychological injury or illness that started in adulthood was, in fact, caused by childhood sexual abuse, or

The victim reasonably should have discovered that such an injury or illness was caused by childhood sexual abuse.3

Example: When she goes off to college at age 18, Janine begins having terrible nightmares. She suffers all through college and grad school. At age 28, Janine's insomnia becomes unbearable and she starts therapy.
Eventually Janine's therapist discovers that Janine was molested by an older teenage neighbor when she was a child. Living in a co-ed dorm caused Janine to suffer from delayed post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Janine has three years to sue from when she discovers her symptoms were caused by the childhood sexual abuse.

"Certificates of merit" required if victim is 26 years old or older at the time of filing the lawsuit

A plaintiff who wishes to take advantage of California's "delayed discovery" rule must provide "certificates of merit" from a mental health professional and a lawyer.

The mental health professional must be someone who has not previously treated the victim. This means the victim cannot use his or her own therapist.

The mental health professional must examine the victim and provide a certificate stating that there is a valid reason why the plaintiff could not have discovered the harm sooner. For instance, in the case set forth above, a psychologist might state that Janine's symptoms did not start until Janine lived in a dorm with many older teenage boys.

The victim's lawyer will then review the case, including, to the extent available::

  • The victim's statement,
  • The police report (if any), and
  • The mental health professional's findings.

The lawyer will then sign a certificate stating that in his or her opinion, the case has merit. 

Because the mental health professional must examine the plaintiff and the lawyer must review that person's findings, it may take some time to get the required certification.

Victims who are age 26 and older must, therefore, act without delay. As soon as they think California's “delayed discovery” rule might apply, they should contact an experienced California injury lawyer.

9.3. Domestic violence

The statute of limitations for civil domestic violence lawsuits in California is three years from:

  • The last act of domestic violence against the plaintiff by the defendant, or
  • The date on which the plaintiff discovers -- or reasonably should have discovered -- that an injury or illness resulted from an act of domestic violence.4

9.4. False imprisonment

In California false imprisonment is both a crime and a civil tort. It occurs when someone deprives another person of liberty without moving them to another location -- for instance, by locking someone in a room and denying him or her the right to leave.

False imprisonment often (but not always) occurs in conjunction with domestic violence cases. However, it has a much shorter statute of limitations -- just one year from when the false imprisonment took place.5

9.5. Theft

Civil claims for theft generally have a statute of limitations of three years in California. It increases to six years, however, if the claim is against a museum, gallery or auction house for the theft of fine art.6

9.6. Felonies for which the defendant was convicted

Victims of a felony crime may have a longer period in which to sue if the DA files criminal charges and the defendant is convicted.

Victims (or their families) are given one year following pronouncement of the conviction to bring a lawsuit or – in cases of serious felonies (such as rape or murder) – 10 years from when the defendant is discharged from parole.7 

Wait for the criminal case to finish or file a lawsuit now?

Because it is not possible to predict whether or when there will be a conviction, victims of crime may wish to bring a suit within the two-year or other applicable civil statute of limitations.

But victims whose cases would otherwise be time-barred can use the felony rule to get more time to bring a suit.

An experienced California injury attorney can help you decide whether you still have the right to sue. Your lawyer can also help you decide whether to wait for a criminal trial to conclude or to bring suit without a conviction.

9.7. Claims against the government

Claims for negligence against the government have a short limitations period and very specific administrative procedures that must be followed before a plaintiff can file suit.

These include “presentment of a claim” (written notice) which must usually be given within six months of the wrongful act – though in some cases victims may have as much as one year.8

Victims of crimes who wish to hold government agencies accountable are advised to speak to a lawyer promptly to avoid their claim becoming time-barred.

10. The civil court process

The first step for most crime victims who wish to file a civil lawsuit is to find a personal injury lawyer who will take the case.

Having a personal injury lawyer with a background in criminal defense or prosecution can be a huge advantage, but is not required.

The lawyer will usually begin by taking statements from the victim and reviewing police records and criminal court proceedings (if any). Assuming there is a basis to file charges, the case will usually move through the following steps: 

  • 1. The complaint is filed with the court.
  • 2. The parties conduct discovery, such as: 
    • Requesting documents from the other side;
    • Interrogatories (in which the other side must answer questions); and
    • Deposing the perpetrator and other witnesses.
  • 3. The attorneys file pre-trial motions (such as motions to compel discovery).
  • 4. The jury is selected.
  • 5. Trial.
  • 6. Damages phase (if conducted separately).
  • 7. The court issues a judgment.
  • 8. The plaintiff tries to collect the debt if the defendant has been found liable.

11. What if the defendant does not pay the judgment?

If the defendant does not pay the judgment the plaintiff might need to go back to court to get help. Ways the court can help the plaintiff collect on a judgment include (but are not limited to):

  • Garnishing the defendant's wages;
  • Putting a lien on the defendant's bank account;
  • Forcing a sale of the defendant's real estate; or
  • Imposing “sanctions” (such as suspension of a professional license) that may encourage the defendant to pay up.

Note that judgments in California are enforceable for 10 years and are renewable in 10-year periods after that. They must be renewed for each new 10-year period before the current period expires.

You may wish to read the Judicial Branch of California's tips on collecting judgments to learn more about your options. 

Were you the victim of a crime in California? Call us for help…

female receptionist

If you or a loved one was a victim of a crime, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation to see how we can help. (For cases in Colorado, please see our page on how to file a lawsuit as a victim of crime in Colorado). 

In addition to filing a civil lawsuit, we can help a victim apply for restitution or other relief from the government, or help prepare a crime victim to testify in court.

Call us at 855-LAWFIRM to speak to a California personal injury attorney in confidence.

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