What to Expect during an Abuse or Molestation Case – A Guide for Survivors

A view of City Hall in historic Pasadena, California.
Sexual abuse and molestation can happen anywhere. Unfortunately, the consequences that reverberate from these heinous acts are all too real. When left to fester, they can lead to emotional pain and suffering that is difficult to overcome. Sexual abuse and molestation should never be tolerated or swept under the rug, and if you’re a survivor, consulting with an experienced California personal injury attorney can help you obtain the compensation to which you are entitled and that you need to navigate the path toward recovery successfully.

The Crimes of Sexual Abuse and Molestation

In California, both sexual abuse and molestation come under the umbrella of sexual assault, which refers to the unwelcome touching of one’s breasts, genitals, buttocks, groin, or anus. While accidentally grazing a person does not constitute a sex crime, purposely reaching out and groping someone else’s private body part is, and the crime is sexual battery. For example, forceable unwanted touching, such as being groped through one’s clothing or kissed against one’s will, qualifies as sexual battery.

Sexual Abuse

When sexual battery is taken a step further, and the act leaves the victim either physically injured or in reasonable fear of experiencing an imminent injury, the crime is elevated to sexual abuse. Sexual abuse includes the crime of rape, but while not all sexual abuse is rape, every rape is a form of sexual abuse. Rape entails a form of sexual intercourse that the victim is subjected to against their will, which can include any of the following means:

  • By force
  • Through violence
  • As a result of menace
  • Under duress
  • By fear of imminent bodily injury
  • By means of fraud

Sexual Molestation

In California, it is against the law to engage in or attempt to engage in a sexual act with a child who is under the age of 18. While child molestation charges vary according to a range of factors, the following molestation statutes are on the book:

  • Performing lewd or lascivious acts on a child who is not yet 16
  • Engaging in oral copulation with a child who is not yet 18
  • Sending obscene or explicit matter to a child who is not yet 18

Sexual molestation is a broad criminal category that extends far beyond these primary examples.

You Can File a Civil Lawsuit for Sexual Abuse or Molestation

If you or someone you love is the victim of sexual abuse or assault in California, you can file a civil lawsuit against your abuser in pursuit of legal damages, which refers to the physical, financial, and emotional losses you experience, including:

  • Medical expenses related to any physical injuries or mental health care you require
  • Lost income related to time lost on the job
  • Physical and emotional pain and suffering, which can be difficult to overestimate in the face of sexual abuse or molestation

You’re Not Required to File a Criminal Charge First

In California, there doesn’t have to be a criminal conviction against your abuser – or even a police report – in order for you to sue the person who harmed you for damages in civil court.

Seeking Peace of Mind

Filing charges against your abuser takes courage, and if it is not the right path forward for you, that is your decision – and only your decision – to make. One thing that moving forward with a police report, however, can afford you is the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are doing what you can to stop the person who harmed you from going on to harm anyone else.

Lending Credibility to Your Civil Case

It’s not uncommon for victims of sexual abuse to be concerned about whether or not they’ll be believed – and whether or not they might even be blamed for the abuse they endured. The fact is, however, that police officers throughout California receive specific training that promotes the respectful and compassionate treatment of sexual abuse victims who come forward, and significant improvements in this arena continue to be made. Ultimately, notifying the police – even if no charges are ever filed – can lend credibility to your civil case.

Considerations to Keep in Mind

By taking your charge to the police, you significantly increase the odds that your abuser will be brought to justice. Your brave act will also instigate an investigation, which may lead to evidence that bolsters your civil claim. Even if the prosecution doesn’t have enough evidence or a strong enough case to proceed with a charge, your efforts will not be in vain. If another person comes forward with similar charges regarding your abuser, it can help build a far more compelling case.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof required for criminal cases is significantly different than it is for civil cases.

Criminal Cases

In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Doing so is an exceptionally high bar, and it means the state has to prove that there is no other reasonable explanation other than that the accused did what they are accused of having done. This requires a strong case, and sometimes the prosecution doesn’t have the evidence necessary to get a case over the finish line. In these instances, they generally don’t press charges. Also, even if the prosecution does press charges, they may feel the need to offer the defendant a plea deal that lessens the charge and subsequent penalties in the face of wobbly evidence.

Civil Cases

In a civil case, the burden of proof required for you to prevail and obtain a settlement is the preponderance of the evidence, meaning the burden is on you to prove it’s more likely than not that the defendant did what they are accused of having done. In other words, you’ll need to demonstrate that the defendant likely did what you say they did.

Decision-Making Authority

Decision-making authority is different in civil cases than it is in criminal cases.

In a Criminal Case

When you press a sexual abuse charge against someone, authority regarding how best to proceed is entirely in the hands of the state. The prosecution will determine if there is enough evidence to proceed, and if they do proceed, they are responsible for making every decision regarding plea deals and virtually everything else. While you instigate the charge – if a charge is pursued – you’ll have no role in terms of making decisions moving forward.

In Civil Cases

With a civil case, on the other hand, the decision-making is left entirely up to you. If you choose to file a civil lawsuit, you’ll call the shots, and you’ll decide whether to settle out of court or move forward by speaking your truth in court, which can have a healing quality. While your seasoned sexual harassment attorney will help you build your strongest case and will help you make the right choices for you, given the unique circumstances of your case, decision-making authority rests with you, which can ultimately prove empowering.

The Jury

If your sexual abuse case goes to trial, the prosecution must convince each of the 12 jurors that the defendant did what they are accused of doing and that there is no other reasonable explanation that will mitigate their guilt. If even one juror seriously doubts the accused’s guilt, the state is unlikely to obtain a conviction.

If you take your civil case to court, however, you’ll need to convince only 9 people on the 12-member jury that your abuser probably did what they are accused of doing. The civil process is considerably less onerous and somewhat less stressful for the survivors who file them.

Understanding the Statute of Limitations

If you were an adult at the time that you were sexually abused, you have only two years from the date that the abuse occurred to file a civil lawsuit against your abuser. This time limit is called the statute of limitations. For criminal sexual assault cases, the statute of limitations is generally 10 years from the date of the crime.

While many people believe that 10 years – or even 2 years – should be ample time to file a lawsuit, if you’re a survivor, the truth is far more complicated. Victims of abuse have a natural tendency to lay low as a means of self-protection, and many find that exposing the matter to the light of day only gives it more power over them. In fact, the emotional losses survivors endure are often the most damaging and profound. As such, the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil cases can be surprisingly brief.

It’s important to note that if your abuser is convicted on the sexual abuse charges – even if your two-year window for filing a civil case has expired – you’ll have one year from the date of judgment to file a civil case.

Childhood Molestation Charges

If your child was sexually molested or abused, or you were sexually molested or abused as a child, the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit is extended. In such cases, you have until the latter of the following two parameters to file:

  • Your 40th birthday
  • 5 years from the date you discover or reasonably should have discovered that the abuse or molestation you suffered caused you psychological harm that occurred after you turned 18

Once you are over the age of 40, the only way to proceed with a civil sexual molestation or abuse case is with certificates of merit that include both the following:

  • The finding by a mental health professional who has never treated you that there is a valid reason why you didn’t discover the harm you suffered as a result of the sexual abuse earlier
  • Your attorney’s finding – after reviewing your case and the mental health professional’s determinations – that your case is meritorious

In other words, the closer you are to 40, the more important it is to weigh your options carefully and to make some difficult decisions if you are considering moving forward with a civil sexual abuse or molestation case.

Third Parties Sometimes Share Responsibility

While the person who sexually abused you is obviously responsible for doing so, there are instances when a third party can also bear liability.

Inadequate Security at Home

Say that you live in an apartment complex with faulty security that allows access to those it shouldn’t and that management has been alerted to the problem many times. If management ignores the issue and you’re later sexually assaulted in the hall by a stranger who took advantage of the faulty security, you can hold the complex owner legally responsible.

Inadequate Security at an Event

If you go to a concert and are sexually groped by a marauding group of strangers while you’re en route to your seat, you may have a case against the promoter for failure to put adequate security in place.

Inadequate Security at School

If a teacher’s aide exposes themself to your child at school and you later learn that the school failed to conduct the necessary background checks on the educator, you can file a case against both the school and the school district. In such an instance, you can not only go after compensation for your damages but can also pursue an injunction that will force the district to take stock of its hiring protocols.

Consult with an Experienced California Personal Injury Attorney Today

The compassionate personal injury attorneys at Blair & Ramirez LLP in Los Angeles recognize the immense challenges that survivors of sexual abuse and molestation face and are committed to fiercely advocating for the compensation to which they are entitled. We are standing by to help, so please don’t wait to contact or call us at 213-568-4000 for more information today.