Many victims of sexual assault or abuse in Pennsylvania or New Jersey are often confused about their legal rights, particularly when it comes to filing a lawsuit. The legal information below provides a brief overview of sex assault/abuse lawsuits in PA or NJ.
For more information, visit the victims’ sex abuse law library. You can also find information about resources for victims in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
Who Can Be Named as a Defendant?
Any person or business entity (school, church, etc.) can be named as a defendant in a lawsuit for sexual assault or abuse. Typically, a sex assault lawsuit will name the criminal perpetrator in addition to any other parties which knew the assault was happening and failed to stop it, or should have anticipated the assault and failed to take action to prevent it. Here are two examples to explain these principles.
Example 1 – Fraternity Liable for Sex Assault at a Frat Party
A young woman is sexually assaulted at a frat party where she is served alcohol despite being underage. A frat member assaults her at the party in front of other fraternity members. No one intervenes or tries to stop the assault.
Example 2 – School Liable for Failing to Investigate Suspected Abuser
A student is sexually assaulted by a teacher despite the fact that the school had received prior reports of inappropriate conduct involving the teacher and other students. School administrators failed to investigate those prior reports and instead chose to ignore them.
Other parties such as business entities can be held liable when an employee or agent commits some act of negligence. In the two examples above, liability is based on the actions of those who acted on behalf of the entity, i.e., fraternity members and school employees.
What’s Involved in a Sexual Assault Lawsuit?
A sexual assault lawsuit proceeds much like any other type of lawsuit. The process is initiated by filing a Complaint, a legal document which sets out the details of the lawsuit, i.e., who the parties are, what happened, and what remedy is being requested. Usually, the remedy or relief being requested is in the form of a monetary sum.
The lawsuit will involve discovery, a period of months where the parties exchange information such as pictures, documents, names of witnesses, etc. Each party will also testify at a deposition, which is usually held in an attorney’s office. After the discovery period is over, the parties will prepare legal documents for trial or settlement.
Where Does the Case Get Filed?
Lawsuits in Pennsylvania or New Jersey are usually filed in the court where:
- the assault occurred,
- one of the defendants lives, or
- one of the defendants does business.
There are specific rules about where a case can actually get filed, which vary from state to state and sometimes within each county.
When Does the Case Get Resolved?
Civil lawsuits are time-consuming and often take well over a year to resolve. It’s not uncommon for a complex case to take 2 years or more to resolve. Sexual abuse or assault cases are often based on legal principles which change over time. A case may involve complex appeals or hearings that prolong resolution.
Specific counties have adopted procedures to ensure faster resolution. Philadelphia, for example, implemented a case management system which sets specific dates in each case to help move the case along.
Eventually, the case will be resolved by way of trial or settlement. Trial is a concern for many victims. The idea of testifying in an open court can be frightening. While it’s important to prepare a case for trial, the reality is that 90% of cases settle prior to trial. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, there are court-mandated settlement conferences. Courts strongly urge parties to resolve cases via settlement rather than going to trial.
Why Should You File a Lawsuit?
Naturally many victims have concerns about filing a civil lawsuit. First and foremost, is a concern about privacy, especially considering the nature of the case. However, the concept of a civil lawsuit involves openness in the proceedings. Therefore, courts in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey will weigh the plaintiff’s interest in privacy against this concept of openness. In some civil sex assault or abuse lawsuits, courts allow the victim to use their initials, such as those involving a minor plaintiff. A court may also grant a motion to seal part of the record if there is a specific reason to do so. Every case is unique, and whether a court allows the plaintiff’s information to remain private depends on the factors which justify the privacy concerns.
Victims also fear losing the case. It’s common for a victim of sexual assault to question whether the lawsuit is worth it, if the case is ultimately lost. There is no way to know whether a case will be successful at the outset. The ultimate success of a case depends on a variety of factors, both factual and legal. How a judge rules can make or break a case, and oftentimes, there is no certainty in terms of how a specific judge will rule on a legal issue.
It’s important to note that a case that may seem weak at the outset can become stronger due to some fact that becomes known later. The opposite is also true, a case that seems strong at the outset could become weaker after some fact is revealed. For example, the character of a key witness may be negatively affected by the discovery that the witness lied. If the witness is important for the defense, the plaintiff’s case would become stronger, and vice versa.
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