Sex Assault & Abuse Lawsuits in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
Over the last 10 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of civil lawsuits for sex assault or abuse, including child molestation. This is in large part due to increased media coverage in the U.S. of high-profile cases, some of which were in Pennsylvania.
For example, there was the Philadelphia Catholic Church priest abuse scandal which resulted in the first criminal prosecution of a church official. The case involves allegations of a widespread cover-up of priest sex abuse of young children. See Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Lynn, a 2012 criminal case which is still ongoing due to multiple appeals.
In New Jersey, the Trenton Archdiocese has faced similar allegations of widespread abuse and cover-ups. Other dioceses in New Jersey have also faced similar scrutiny.
In addition, there was the Jerry Sandusky Penn State scandal which resulted in a criminal conviction for Sandusky and multiple civil lawsuits alleging a cover up by Penn State employees. Sandusky received a lifelong prison sentence.
There have been dozens of other cases, and investigations are ongoing. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office is investigating reports of sexual abuse in at least 4 other dioceses in the state. Teachers and school employees throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been arrested and accused of sexually abuse of students. In many cases, civil lawsuits have followed.
Media attention tends to focus on high profile cases, ones that often involve children. But sex abuse/assault isn’t limited to children.
Adult men, women and the elderly are often victimized. An elderly man or woman in a nursing home may be sexually assaulted by another resident or staff member. A man or woman walking to their car in an isolated parking lot may be sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant.
Criminal cases are sometimes successful, and sometimes they aren’t. Whether it’s due to a lack of physical evidence or lack of corroborating evidence, criminal cases can and do fail.
Civil lawsuits for sex assault or abuse often succeed, even where the underlying criminal case fails or gets dismissed.
Monetary recovery is the hallmark of the civil justice system. That’s how civil cases get resolved, and it’s because a court has the power to enforce money judgements. A contract dispute will ultimately be resolved by way of a monetary sum. The same thing goes for a sexual assault case. The critical question is whether the victim-plaintiff in a civil sex assault lawsuit can actually get financially compensated. The answer depends on 1. proving liability, and 2. ensuring that financial recovery is even available.
Proving Liability – The Precursor to Financial Recovery
Under the laws of both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, any individual or business entity can be held liable for intentional conduct or negligence. In a sexual abuse or assault lawsuit, the perpetrator (individual) can be held liable for intentional conduct, i.e., committing an act of assault. By the same token, a business, such as a church, school, etc., can be held liable as well. In most cases, liability of a business is based on negligence.
Negligence is defined as the failure to do something you should do, or doing something you shouldn’t do. In sex abuse or assault lawsuits in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, liability of a business entity often involves the failure to take action. For instance, in a school sex abuse case, the school may be liable because it failed to investigate reports of sexual abuse by a teacher, or failed to report the conduct to law enforcement.
Is Financial Recovery Even Available?
From a practical standpoint, civil lawsuits are only filed if there is a fair chance of success, including a fair chance that the plaintiff will receive financial recovery. Naturally, lawsuits involve a considerable amount of time and resources. There are court costs, investigation costs, deposition fees, etc. The amount of paperwork and copying alone can total hundreds of dollars.
Before a civil lawsuit is filed, an attorney will determine the likelihood of a financial recovery. Oftentimes, the deciding factor is whether parties other than the perpetrator can be held liable. In most cases, filing a lawsuit against a perpetrator will be counter-productive. Most people don’t have access to large bank accounts or real estate. Sex abuse victims don’t want to put themselves through the emotional upheaval of a civil lawsuit and get nothing but an apology in return.
Consequently, these types of lawsuits are often successful when a business or organization like a church or school is added as a defendant. That’s because commercial insurance often comes into play when a church or school commits a negligent act that results in liability. These organizations almost always purchase commercial insurance policies that protect them when they get sued for negligent conduct. These policies will apply and provide an actual source of recovery for the victim-plaintiff.
For example, a school is held liable for failing to protect a student from a predator on campus. The school purchased a general liability insurance policy with a limit of $1,000,000 per incident. The student would be able to obtain up to $1,000,000 from the insurance company, on behalf of the school. Exactly how much depends on the verdict amount or settlement.
If you would like to discuss a potential sex abuse lawsuit in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, please contact our sex abuse victims lawyers. Visit the Pennsylvania & New Jersey Sex Abuse Victims Law Library.
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