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Frequently Asked Questions About Civil Lawsuits for Victims of Sexual Abuse

Page last updated: January 4, 2017

Below you will find some frequently asked questions about criminal and civil justice for victims of priest abuse, clergy abuse, child molestation or sexual abuse and assaul in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Can child molestation and sex abuse victims succeed in civil lawsuits?

Yes. Victims of child molestation, priest and clergy abuse, sexual assault, and sex abuse can bring tort claims against not only the perpetrator, but any person or business who either intentionally or negligently allowed the abuse to occur. However, sex abuse victims are commonly mistaken about their rights and end their search for justice at the conclusion of the criminal case.  Many do not know that a criminal conviction is not necessary to bring a successful civil suit. Even if a sexual predator is never arrested, never prosecuted, or even if a sexual predator is acquitted, a sex abuse victim can still prevail in a civil lawsuit.

What can child molestation and sex abuse victims accomplish with a civil lawsuit?

The Pennsylvania and New Jersey civil justice systems can accomplish what the criminal justice systems cannot – financial recovery for pain and suffering and future damages such as future lost earnings and future medical expenses.  In some cases, simply bringing the lawsuit can provide some measure of justice, by shedding light on the abuse itself.  Bringing a perpetrator to justice also decreases the chances that he or she will abuse others in the future.

Who can be sued?

Civil justice for victims of child molestation, priest and clergy abuse, sexual assault, and sex abuse oftentimes includes liability of other persons and institutions which contributed to the abuse by failing to report or actively concealing the abuse. So, not only is the perpetrator a named defendant, hospitals, schools, day care centers and many more can be successfully sued. Also, family members can be sued for the abuse or for failing to protect, or even worse, hiding the abuse.

Is the victim’s privacy protected?

A sex abuse victim’s privacy can be protected in many ways throughout the civil justice process. Names and addresses can be redacted from pleadings, and all or part of the record may be sealed, including depositions and written discovery.  Settlements can and often do include confidentiality agreements.

Filing a civil lawsuit can be difficult, especially for sex abuse victims. On the one hand, filing a civil lawsuit may provide vindication and justice. Doing so sheds light on a predator and gives a sex abuse victim an opportunity to be heard. On the other hand, factors such as the length of time it takes to conclude the civil case or having to discuss the abuse and its effects multiple times can be discouraging.  At the end of the day, the choice to file a lawsuit belongs solely to the sex abuse victim.

More FAQs

  • School Sex Abuse Q&A: Student sexually assaulted by another student (April 10, 2014) Question: My child was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at school. What are my child’s legal rights? Answer: Learning that your child was sexually assaulted is one of the worst nightmares for any parent. Here are three things you should do: 1. File a police report. The most important thing you can do is file a ...
  • Can a store or business be liable for a sexual assault? (August 26, 2013) Yes, in states like PA and NJ, businesses who invite customers into their buildings/stores owe them one of the highest duties under the law. That duty includes the duty to 1. warn customers of known or reasonably suspected criminal behavior, and 2. take adequate steps to protect customers from known or reasonably suspected criminal activity. Example ...
  • Can a school in New Jersey be liable for failing to report sex abuse of a student? (June 13, 2013) Yes. Schools in New Jersey may be held liable for failing to report reasonably suspected cases of sex abuse of a student.  Whether committed by a fellow student, a teacher, coach or principal, schools in New Jersey are legally required to report sex abuse to proper law enforcement, and failure to do so can result ...
  • How long does a civil sex abuse case take? (May 28, 2013) A: There are many factors which determine how long a civil sex abuse takes. The average time it takes to completely resolve a civil sex abuse case is between 1 to 2 years in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, excluding time for any appeals. If the case goes to trial and a verdict is reached, either ...
  • Can a school be held liable for failing to protect a student from sex abuse? (April 2, 2013) A: The answer depends on many factors such as the statute of limitations, the applicability of any exceptions to the statute, and whether the school is a private or public school. In general, public schools have some protection under state law, whereas private schools do not receive such protection. For private schools such as religious schools ...
  • Can a child sex abuse victim sue a relative for sex abuse? (March 18, 2013) In general, anyone who suffered sexual abuse or assault can sue (i.e., bring a civil lawsuit) the abuser, whether that person is a relative or a non-relative like a priest or teacher. In addition to a civil lawsuit, reporting the sex abuse to law enforcement may also help the victim obtain justice in the criminal ...
  • What is the difference between a criminal and civil sex abuse case? (February 7, 2013) A: There are many differences between a criminal and civil sex abuse case. The key difference is who is the plaintiff, or person/entity bringing the case. In a criminal case, the state via the local prosecuting office brings charges against the defendant or person who committed the sexual assault. Read more about the criminal justice ...
  • Can a public school in Pennsylvania be held liable for sex abuse of a student? (January 8, 2013) A: It depends on the situation. Under Pennsylvania state law, government entities such as public school districts are generally immune from liability (with some statutory exceptions). So, in a situation where a school fails to investigate a reasonably suspected case of sex abuse of a student by a teacher, Pennsylvania law will generally bar a ...
  • Is a school legally responsible when a teacher sexually abuses a student? (December 27, 2012) A: In some situations, a school can be held liable when a teacher sexually abuses a student. However, there must be negligence on the part of the school. Simply hiring a teacher who molests a student is usually not enough. More: Filing Criminal Charges Against a Sex Abuser in Pennsylvania – What You Should Consider There must ...
  • Can a Philadelphia day care center be liable for sex abuse of a child/student? (November 28, 2012) Under Pennsylvania law, a business can be held liable for sexual abuse which occurs due to actions of its employees, agents etc. In addition, Pennsylvania courts have held businesses liable for failing to protect customers from criminal activity of known/unknown third parties. The key in these situations is foreseeability, i.e., was the criminal activity reasonably ...
  • What is the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse in Pennsylvania? (November 20, 2012) A: In Pennsylvania, sexual predators can be criminally prosecuted up until the victim turns 50 years old. However, currently, the Pennsylvania legislature is considering whether to abolish the statute of limitations in criminal child sex abuse cases altogether.  Read about the bill to abolish the criminal statute of limitations here. 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 5552 (c)(3) ...
  • I was abused by a priest in Pennsylvania many years ago, when I was a child. What should I do? (November 5, 2012) A: Criminal charges may be possible and deciding to go forward with criminal charges is a very important decision that should be made with a full understanding of what the criminal process will entail in a child sex abuse case. The criminal statute of limitations in Pennsylvania for child molestation or child sex abuse is ...
  • Does the statute of limitations bar my child sex abuse claim in Pennsylvania? (October 25, 2012) A: Many victims of child sex abuse can file criminal charges (up to the age of 50) or may be able to file civil claims. Each case varies and depends on the facts and dates of abuse. The statute of limitation is the single most important question in determining what a sex abuse victim’s rights are. ...
  • As a victim in a civil or criminal sex abuse case, will my credibility be attacked? (July 25, 2012) A: Many victims in criminal and civil cases find themselves feeling as though their credibility is attacked. The reality is that credibility is important. Ultimately, jurors or a judge who decides the case, will look to the victim to see if he or she is believable. Especially in situations where there is corroborating testimony or ...
  • How is a civil child sex abuse lawsuit resolved? (July 6, 2012) In Pennsylvania, civil lawsuits will end in a trial or settlement which is an agreement between the parties. While the vast majority of cases will be settled prior to trial, some cases must be tried. A trial will be necessary where an abuser continues to deny the abuse or otherwise refuses to accept responsibility. The ...
  • What will happen if I press charges against a sexual abuser who abused me when I was a child? (June 3, 2012) Question: Can a victim of sexual abuse press charges against the abuser? A: The decision to report child molestation and press criminal charges, no matter how long ago, is a deeply personal one. Many victims are simply unaware of their legal rights and more importantly, what happens when a police report is made. After a child sex ...
  • Can a victim abused by a Philadelphia police officer file a civil lawsuit for the abuse? (May 12, 2012) A: In cases where an officer abuses a citizen, Pennsylvania law allows the victim to file a lawsuit for damages for the abuse. However, the answer depends on factors such as: when the incident occurred, the age of the victim at the time of the abuse, whether the officer was on duty, or whether there ...
  • What are the legal rights of children abused by a teacher? (April 13, 2012) Children who are abused in school settings, whether by an administrator, teacher, aide, nurse, coach or janitor, have legal rights under the laws of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. First, a victim of sex abuse in a school setting has legal rights in the criminal justice system. For instance, under the Pennsylvania Crime Victim’s Act, victims ...