What Rights Do Survivors of Sexual Assault Have?

We are approaching a time when survivors can speak out without fear of punishment or being silenced. When so much is at stake, it's critical that those who have experienced sexual abuse, assault, or harassment understand their legal rights.

Is it Possible to Sue for Sexual Assault?

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. Whether or not the criminal justice system fails to put perpetrators behind bars, survivors may be able to file a lawsuit in civil court to pursue justice. Sexual abuse leaves lasting emotional, physical, and even financial scars on victims. Aside from causing emotional trauma, abuse and sexual harassment can impact a victim's life, well-being, career, and financial stability.  

While there is no legal cause of action for sexual assault per se, it may be actionable under another tort, such as:

  • Assault and battery
  • False imprisonment
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • Negligent infliction of emotional distress - a potential cause of action against witnesses

In some cases, other parties such as organizations that failed to take appropriate action may also be responsible for the assault and the suffering it causes. A future post will cover third-party claims.

Who is Liable for Child Molestation?

Cover-ups like these are severely punished in California and throughout the United States.

The following is an overview of the parties that can be held liable for instances of child abuse and molestation.

Sexual Abuse Cover-Ups

Victims of sexual abuse often commit their crimes in environments where they know they will probably get away with it. These environments can be found in religious institutions, universities, hospitals, and other places where powerful individuals silence those with less power. There are an unfortunate number of well-known cases of sexual abuse cover-ups. For example:

  • The Catholic Church covered up hundreds of cases of sex abuse committed by priests.
  • Former gynecologist George Tyndall committed dozens of acts of sexual misconduct that were not handled correctly by the University of Southern California.
  • Brian Houston, founder of Hillsong Church, was charged in 2021 with covering up sexual abuse within the church.

Who is Accountable for Sexual Abuse?

Liability for sexual abuse may be the responsibility of several parties, particularly if the abuse is concentrated in one institution. The existence of such a phenomenon implies that the abuse is widely known and has been allowed to continue behind a veil of secrecy in order to avoid scandal.

For instance, if an institution, such as a church or university, covered up a perpetrator's sexual abuse, the perpetrator and anyone involved with the cover-up may be held responsible for damages.

In particular, California courts have the power to triple damages when sexual abuse occurs in conjunction with a cover-up attempt or a successful cover-up. Other courts throughout the country may provide additional damages too.

The following damages may be recovered from liable parties by survivors of sexual abuse:

  • Physical and emotional suffering
  • Past and future medical expenses associated with physical injuries
  • Past and future therapy and counseling for anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder related to the abuse
  • Survivors' past and future lost wages due to their inability to find or maintain meaningful employment as a result of the abuse

Who Should Bear the Cost of Childhood Sexual Abuse

It is undeniable that the consequences of childhood sexual abuse are severe. It is also undeniable, but not appreciated by the proponents of this line of thought, that unless statutes of limitations provide survivors with meaningful access to civil courts, those who are otherwise legally and morally responsible for the abuse will not be held liable. On the contrary, the survivor, their family, their employer, their community, the system of public health programs, and taxpayers are the ones who bear the burden. Is this a fair situation? There is no logical reason for society to bear the costs of institutional wrongdoing instead of the guilty institutions themselves. Under the law, there should be a reasonable time period to allow survivors of abuse to bring claim against the most guilty and against a liable third party – those institutions who knew of the danger and had the best opportunity to prevent it but failed to take steps to protect children from abuse.

The consequences of childhood sexual abuse are wide-ranging and far-reaching. Surviving such abuse carries an increased risk of health problems and behavioral difficulties. According to research conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control, children who are exposed to adverse childhood experiences, such as sexual abuse, are at an increased risk of developing significant health issues later on in their lives, including the onset of some forms of cancer in adulthood. As an adult, those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse report more symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and are more likely to experience major depressive disorders as well. It is also important to note that childhood sexual abuse can lead to the development of a variety of addictions and substance abuse.

It is important to note that the effects of childhood sexual abuse go beyond individual problems. The health and behavioral problems survivors face have negative implications both within the family and at the workplace. The downstream effects of the abuse lead to emotional, physical, and financial losses for third parties involved in the survivor's life, years or decades after the abuse has taken place. Public health programs, including Medicaid, are often accessed by survivors whose childhood experiences have affected their adult life.

Research shows that the average survivor of childhood sexual abuse does not fully remember or come to terms with what happened until decades later. Public policy and morality both argue against limiting a victim's access to justice simply because of the passage of time.

California’s Extended Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is often committed by someone close to the victim, someone they trust. This explains why many children who experience abuse from a family member, church leader, close friend, coach, or teacher take decades to come forward.

Sexual abuse offenses have caused great pain and injury to those who suffered childhood sexual abuse or any form of sexual abuse, and it is through no fault of their own that these victims suffer. Many states, including California, have statutes of limitations that provide victims with a period during which they have the right to file lawsuits against their abusers. Formerly, California's statute of limitations did not give victims of childhood sexual abuse enough time to sort through their trauma, affording abusers of many innocent children a chance to escape justice.

Recent changes in the law have resulted in extending California's statute of limitations, which means that abused children now have a greater period in which to file a lawsuit. These changes are discussed below.

California’s Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Abuse

The previous statute of limitations for California's childhood sexual abuse victims stated that they must file a lawsuit either by age 26 or, if they were already adults, within three years of realizing their psychological injury was caused by childhood sexual abuse (whichever was later).

This changed in October 2019 following Governor Gavin Newsom's signing of Assembly Bill 218 into law. Among the many provisions of this law, the State's statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood sexual abuse was extended, giving survivors of abuse more time to bring their claims.

Now, the relevant statutes and time limits governing childhood sexual abuse claims in California include the following:

  • Individuals who were sexually abused as children are required to file a lawsuit by their 40th birthday or within five years of discovering the abuse as adults.
  • From January 2020, survivors of childhood sexual abuse will have a three-year window in which they can file claims previously barred by the statute of limitations.
  • In cases where a layer of cover-up or attempted cover-up has occurred alongside sexual abuse, the court has the authority to triple the damages awarded.

This change in the law has helped solve a problem prevalent in childhood sexual abuse cases: as children, victims of sexual abuse require adequate time to understand that they have been abused and take the appropriate action. A child suffering from sexual abuse may suffer from memory loss as a result of the trauma, and it may take decades for them to remember or comprehend the trauma they have experienced.

What Constitutes Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse may take the following forms:

  • Exhibitionism or exposing oneself
  • Fondling
  • Intercourse
  • Masturbating in the presence of a victim or forcing the victim to masturbate
  • Calls or texts that are obscene or offensive
  • Possessing or producing child pornography in any form

What Are the Signs of Sexual Abuse?

Identifying and understanding the warning signs of sexual abuse can be extremely helpful for family members, friends, and loved ones. It isn't always easy to spot sexual abuse but there are common red flags that one should be aware of, such as:

  • Bleeding, bruises, or swelling in the genital area
  • Changes in hygiene, such as refusing to bathe or bathing excessively
  • Exhibiting signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Experiencing sudden difficulties in school
  • Committing self-harming behaviors

Who is More at Risk of Experiencing Sexual Abuse?

It is often the case that sexual abusers take advantage of trusting relationships to commit their heinous crimes. Abusers know that people who place their trust in them are less likely to recognize what they are experiencing as abuse and report it.

The following are some examples of relationships in which sexual abuse is known to occur:

  • Parent, stepparent, or foster parent and child
  • Coach and player
  • Teacher and student
  • Doctor and patient
  • Religious authority figure and member of the church

Additionally, abusers often target people who are unlikely to report the abuse to the authorities, such as young children, the elderly, and the disabled. The abuser may use tactics to manipulate the victim into staying quiet about the abuse, including telling them that the activity is normal, that they are enjoying it, or that they will enjoy it. Offenders often use their power to make their victim tolerate sexual abuse. It is also possible for them to use threats or intimidation to scare their victims into silence.

Why Does Sexual Abuse Often Go Unanswered?

Considering that sexual abuse has been a taboo subject for so long, several institutions have developed a system of concealing the abuse or failing to deal with allegations properly.

It is common for clergy, universities, and other large institutions where reputations are at stake to engage in this type of concealment. Instead of responding to allegations appropriately, many institutions choose to shield themselves from negative publicity by attempting to hide the instances of abuse altogether.

Examples of this phenomenon include the following:

  • Involvement of the Catholic Church in multiple cases of sexual abuse cover-up
  • The University of Southern California's refusal to remove gynecologist George Tyndall from its staff after allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse
  • The failure by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics to protect students and gymnasts from the sexual abuse perpetrated by former staff physician Larry Nassar

Also, far too often children do not tell others about sexual abuse because they have been threatened with bodily harm, are in fear of being removed from their home, are in fear of not being believed, have shame or guilt, and/or fear of getting in trouble themselves.

Recovery Options and Resources for Childhood Sexual Abuse Victims

Children are resilient as are adults that have suffered childhood sexual abuse. With the right combination of support, counseling, resources, and medical and/or legal help, victims can seek out the care and the treatment they deserve.

How Childhood Sexual Abuse Victims Can Seek Justice

It is incredibly challenging to sort through childhood trauma and find the courage to come forward after having experienced sexual abuse as a child.

Thankfully, the extension of California's childhood sexual abuse statute of limitations will allow survivors more time to pursue justice and compensation.

Act Now

At the Law Offices of Mark Yablonovich, our trial attorneys can help you identify liable parties and file a sexual abuse claim against them. We’re passionate about protecting the rights of sexual abuse survivors, and we want to help you through this.

Don't let another moment pass in silence. Contact the Law Offices of Mark Yablonovich today at (888) 306-4228 to schedule a confidential consultation if you would like to know more about your rights as a survivor of sexual assault.

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