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October 19, 2022

Should a Sexual Abuse Survivor File a Lawsuit?

Post By:
Krisel McSweeney
In-House Contributor
Attorney & Founder
McSweeney Law Firm
Guest Contributor:

Many survivors struggle with discussing the details of their trauma. They are preoccupied with picking up the pieces of their lives to resume normalcy, but this can be incredibly difficult for some to do. Survivors of sexual abuse can experience post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of guilt or shame. 

What if I told you that pursuing a civil legal claim may allow for a measure of justice that actually helps survivors of sexual abuse in their healing process? Many survivors aren’t even aware they can sue for the damages resulting from this trauma.

There are some differences in the civil process for sexual abuse cases. Here are some important things to know.

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Most people are aware that there is a criminal process that can be pursued against the perpetrator if you have been a victim of a crime. However, in the criminal process, the survivor of sexual assault is not a party to the case; they are essentially a witness. The parties in the criminal process are the state versus the defendant. This means that the survivor has little to no control over the criminal process. At times, law enforcement and prosecutors may be insensitive to the survivor’s trauma.This dynamic can be revictimizing for the survivor. 

The burden of proof is held to a standard in criminal proceedings: “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is difficult to prove many of these crimes when most sexual assault cases are based on testimony as evidence. With that said, not all criminal cases result in convictions.  

However, in the civil process, the survivor is a party, and makes decisions regarding his or her case. This means that the survivor is empowered through the process. The civil process also allows for compensation to be awarded to the survivor. 

No amount of money can make a survivor of sexual abuse whole again, but it can be of assistance in accessing the proper care, resources, or any other needs that may arise after the abuse. Claims are usually brought against potential defendants with assets; this may include individual perpetrators or institutions that were negligent in allowing the abuse to occur, ie. schools, daycares, cruise ships, churches, orphanages, foster care, etc. It’s important to assess the ability to collect prior to engaging in the civil process. If there is no ability to collect compensation, the claim would not be worth pursuing and pose the potential for revictimizing the survivor.

While the primary purpose of a civil claim is for compensation, it may also have the potential for collateral impact. Examples of this may be policy changes within the defendant’s institutions; notice to the public of the defendant’s deficient practices that place individuals at risk of sexual abuse; exposure of predators and predatory behaviors; motivation for other survivors of sexual abuse to come forward; and changes in standards of care allowing for a safer environment. 

Keep in mind that there is a statute of limitations that applies to these claims. This means that after a certain amount of time has passed, a survivor may not be able to move forward with your claim. It is important that survivors contact an attorney as soon as possible to learn their legal rights.

When pursuing a civil claim, it is essential to choose the right legal representation to ensure the case is handled correctly and avoid revictimization. The best choice is a trauma-informed law firm that recognizes the serious effects of trauma and integrates knowledge about trauma and adversity into their legal practice. 

One of the common effects of sexual abuse is that survivors feel as if their power was taken away. But through the civil process and with the support of a trauma-informed law firm, they can become empowered and let their voice be heard! This can be a powerful step in the healing process.

Krisel McSweeney, Esq.

Founder of McSweeney Law Firm

A personal injury firm specializing in sexual abuse cases