Case Valuation in Pennsylvania & New Jersey Sex Abuse or Assault Lawsuits
In the last decade, our Pennsylvania and New Jersey sex abuse victims law practice has seen a significant increase in the number of lawsuits for sexual abuse and assault. Due to media coverage in high profile cases, victims of abuse are finding the courage to file lawsuits against perpetrators as well as other parties which allowed the abuse/assault to occur, such as schools, churches, doctors and other medical professionals.
Victims of abuse or assault aren’t usually thinking about settlement value of a lawsuit at the outset of a case. However, financial compensation tends to be the only way to resolve a case. The civil justice system in this country decides the rights and liabilities of parties in monetary terms. That’s because courts can enforce monetary judgements. Courts can’t enforce things like letters of apology or mandated counseling. For example, in a sex abuse lawsuit, a court cannot order a party to go to mandatory counseling after the case is over. So, monetary compensation is how courts resolve lawsuits.
Determining Settlement Value of a Sex Abuse or Assault Lawsuit
The value of any lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, including sexual abuse or assault lawsuits, depends on the damages, i.e., the financial losses and pain and suffering caused by the actions of the defendant(s). The most common types of claims for damages in personal injury lawsuits include:
- medical expenses,
- lost wages, if any,
- out of pocket expenses,
- pain and suffering, and
- punitive damages.
Related: Pennsylvania & New Jersey Sex Assault Lawsuits – Does the Victim Have to Testify? Victims of abuse or assault are often afraid of having to testify in court. In this post, we explain when and how victims testify in civil lawsuits.
Financial Losses (Medical Bills, Lost Wages, Etc.)
The first three in the list above, medical expenses, lost wages and out of pocket expenses, tend to be fairly straightforward. If a sexual assault results in financial losses, the victim (plaintiff) in a lawsuit has a right to be compensated for those losses, dollar for dollar.
However, there is no double dipping. Many states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey offer financial assistance to victims through state-funded programs. In addition, in any criminal case, a victim of sex abuse or assault may request restitution from a perpetrator. Victims who receive financial assistance through the state or restitution in a criminal case cannot turn around and seek the same from the perpetrator in a civil case.
For instance, a victim of a violent sexual assault sustains serious injuries that require surgery. She incurs several thousand dollars in medical bills and misses several weeks from work. The bills, lost wages and incidental costs total $15,000. She makes a claim through a state-funded victims assistance fund and receives $2,500. She also makes a claim for restitution through the criminal case and receives $500. In her civil lawsuit, she cannot make a claim for what was already paid via the victims assistance fund and restitution. Therefore, the total financial loss claim in her lawsuit is $12,000 ($15,000 less $2,500 and $500).
Pain and Suffering
Putting a value on pain and suffering is not as straightforward as determining value of the financial losses. Given the highly sensitive nature of sex abuse or sex assault lawsuits, awards for pain and suffering tend to vary widely. There’s no litmus test to determine how much a given case is worth.
There are two types of factors which affect a pain and suffering award. First, there are facts about the acts of abuse/assault. These factors affect the immediate pain and suffering:
- the extent of the abuse/assault,
- the length of the abuse/assault,
- the relationship of the abuser to the victim,
- whether the abuser threatened the victim or victim’s family members with violence, and
- whether medical treatment was necessary, including surgery.
Second, there are facts about how the abuse/assault affected the victim on a more long term level:
- the nature and extent of the victim’s mental and emotional trauma,
- whether the victim suffered any physical scarring,
- whether the victim was able to return to work/school,
- whether the victim was able to resume normal life activities,
- whether the victim became dependent on drugs or alcohol,
- whether the victim was able to maintain healthy relationships, and
- whether mental health treatment was/is necessary.
It’s important to note that pain and suffering tends to be different for everyone. This is especially true in sexual abuse or assault cases. Everyone responds to sexual abuse or assault differently. Two people who suffer similar acts of assault or abuse may respond in vastly different ways.
Liability – The Strength of the Case Will Affect Settlement Value
One of the most important factors in determining the value of a sex assault or abuse lawsuit is proof of liability. How strong is the evidence that the defendant’s actions caused or led to the abuse or assault? If liability is weak, the value of the case may be drastically affected.
As an example, let’s examine a former student’s lawsuit against a school for failing to prevent sex assault by a teacher. The facts show that the teacher was known for spending time with students alone. However, there is no evidence that the teacher was previously reported for having inappropriate sexual contact with any student. In addition, there’s no evidence that the school’s administrators ever received a report, verbal or otherwise, about any misconduct on the part of the teacher. There is evidence that other teachers suspected that the teacher was engaging in inappropriate relationships with students, but no one ever reported their suspicions to school administrators because they hadn’t ever witnessed any acts of misconduct.
In this instance, the evidence against the school is rather weak. It did not receive prior reports of misconduct by the specific perp-teacher, nor did any other teachers witness acts of misconduct. The only helpful fact is that other teachers had suspicions that the teacher was engaging in inappropriate relationships. However, this fact, alone, is probably not sufficient to hold the school liable. The liability case is quite weak which means that the chance of successfully resolving the case by way of settlement before trial is not good. It’s actually pretty likely that the case would be dismissed prior to trial for lack of evidence.
The point is that evidence of the defendant’s negligent or wrongful conduct must be strong. Otherwise, the case is not likely to be resolved in favor of the victim. Settlement value is very much affected by the evidence of liability.
Statutory Caps on Recovery – Cases Against Government Agencies
It’s important to note that there are statutory caps on financial recovery in cases against government entities, specifically state or local entities such as state-run entities or local agencies. These laws limit the amount of financial recovery a government entity can pay when it is sued for negligence. For example, in Pennsylvania, there is a statutory cap of $250,000 or $500,000 for state and local entities, respectively.
Non-Monetary Terms of Settlement
Oftentimes, the victim in a sex assault or abuse lawsuit can negotiate a settlement term that has nothing to do with money, such as a public apology, changes in policies at the institutional level or mandated training of all employees on reporting sex assault/abuse. These types of settlement terms can provide much-needed mental or emotional satisfaction for a victim.
Visit the sex abuse victims law library for more information.
Pennsylvania & New Jersey Sex Abuse Victims Law Firm
Laffey, Bucci & Kent represents victims of assault and abuse throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For a free consultation, please call 215.399.9255 (Phila. Office) or 609.223.8900 (Atlantic City, Cherry Hill & Iselin Offices).
Page last reviewed and updated: January 31, 2018