What's the Problem?
Unlike the criminal law process, which punishes abusers, civil lawsuits compensate victims of childhood abuse.
A civil lawsuit based on a child who was sexually assaulted can be brought under a number of different legal theories. In some situations, both the perpetrator and the perpetrator's employer (or another third party) can be held accountable, either by the child or the child's parents.
Who Can Sue in Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits?
Either the child or the child's legal care giver—birth parents or otherwise—may be able to file a civil claim for legal fees, according to the Incest National Network.
The youth groups, typically represented by a parent or other guardian, can sue for the physical or emotional harm caused by the abuse. The caregivers may be able to pursue compensation for their own emotional distress, legal fee, medical expenses and related harm stemming from the abuse.
Processing childhood sexual assault is a very personal undertaking that often requires time and tact, so a sexual abuse survivor may be well into adulthood before they're ready to consider their options. Thankfully, many states have passed law enforcement that takes these issues into account.
Causes of Action
There is no one civil cause of action referred to as "child sexual abuse." Instead, a plaintiff suing for this kind of harm can include a number of different causes of action in a single personal injury lawsuit against the perpetrator and/or other institutions.
As with other sexual harassment cases, the same facts can make a defendant liable under a variety of passed laws. Although finding a defendant liable under multiple theories in a single civil suit does not necessarily mean a plaintiff will receive more in the way of punitive damages, it does mean the plaintiff has a better chance of winning the criminal case.
The causes of action most likely to fit the facts in child sexual abuse cases include children who were sexually assaulted, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Additionally, depending on the facts of the case, third parties might share liability along with the perpetrator.
Also read: The Difference Between Molestation and Sexual Abuse
USC Payout Tops $1 Billion to Resolve Gynecologist Sex Abuse Claims
USC in March 2021 agreed to pay more than $1.1 billion to former patients of campus gynecologist George Tyndall, the largest sex abuse payout for negligent hiring in higher education history.
The huge sum was revealed in Los Angeles Superior Court as lawyers for a final group of 710 women, medical professionals and third parties suing the university told a judge they had settled their civil claim for $852 million.
USC previously agreed to pay thousands of other alumnae and students $215 million in a 2018 federal class-action settlement. A group of about 50 other cases were settled for an amount that has not been made public.
The sole full-time gynecologist at the student health clinic from 1989 until 2016, Tyndall was accused of preying on a generation of USC women. After The Times exposed his troubled history at the university three years ago, the 74-year-old was stripped of his medical license and arrested. He has pleaded not guilty to dozens of sexual assaults and is awaiting trial.
Report Finds 37 years of Sexual Assault by University of Michigan Doctor
In May 2021, a report was published detailing sexual assault allegations against Dr. Robert Anderson, a deceased former doctor at the University of Michigan who has been named as a defendant in several civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and oral sex filed by former patients.
The report found “no doubt” that hundreds of allegations against Anderson are credible and represent a devastating pattern of misconduct.
At least 40 men, including 3 former athletes at the college, have accused Anderson of sexually assaulting them during routine medical exams, according to ABC News.
Complaints about Anderson to the University of Michigan go back more than 40 years, when he was first accused of fondling patients during exams, according to police documents obtained by the Associated Press. Anderson was punished with a demotion but allowed to keep his job, going on to be accused of sexual assault again as a physician with the school district athletic department.
Santa Clarita Basketball Coach Sentenced to 9 Years for Child Sexual Abuse
A basketball coach in Santa Clarita, California, was sentenced in July 2019 to 9 years in state prison and will be required to register as a sex offender for life.
Jeremy Andre Haggerty, 34, pleaded no-contest to sex-related charges involving teenage boys who either played on his team or were trained by him.
The charges included more than half a dozen counts of sexual battery and four counts of attempted lewd acts upon children, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
Investigators said Haggerty worked at several high school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley, including Trinity Classical Academy, West Ranch High and Canyon High. The incidents occurred for nearly 10 years, during which Haggerty is accused of sexual assault on 8 victims who ranged in age between 14 and 17 years old.
Just before the judge handed down her sentence, she asked Haggerty if he had anything to say, and he said, "no."
A parent has also filed a lawsuit against Hart High School in Santa Clarita and the former coach, claiming school officials either knew or should have been aware Haggerty was sexually abusing high school basketball players.
New York Passes Child Victims Act
The New York State Legislature in Nov. 2018 passed a bill -- known as the Child Victims Act -- which permits victims of sexual abuse until the age of 55 to file a civil lawsuit against their abuser(s), a significant increase from the previous age limit of 23.
In addition to the changes made in regards to civil cases, the act extends the statute of limitations for victims in criminal cases of sexual assault and post traumatic stress disorder to file charges until the age of 28, according to The New York Times. The bill also includes a one-year window during which victims of any age or time limit can come forward for criminal prosecution.
Prior to the passage of the Child Victims Act, victims of childhood sexual abuse in New York had been pushing lawmakers for over a decade to increase their ability to file civil claims, only to be denied by powerful lobbies such as insurance companies, private schools, and the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, the act remained stalled for 13 years.
Then the democrats won control of the Senate in November 2018. The Senate and Assembly overwhelmingly approved the act in January, with every senator -- both Republican and Democrat -- voting in favor, 130-3.
Many other states allow such claims claims to be brought for the past few decades after the abuse, and 9 states have no statutes of limitations at all.
Per the new law, prosecutors may bring criminal charges to hold those accountable until a victim turns 28, and victims can sue until age 55. The bill also creates a year-long “look-back window,” during which old claims that had already passed the statute of limitations may be revived.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Ordered to Pay $35 Million in Abuse Lawsuit
A Montana jury in September 2018 ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to pay $35 million to a woman who claimed the church covered up her abuse for years.
The Montana Jehovah's Witnesses lawsuit is the first of dozens of similar cases filed in courts across the U.S. to reach the trial phase. All of the complaints cite similar allegations that the church mismanaged or covered up the sexual abuse of children.
Plaintiffs in the Montana case alleged that 3 family members sexually abused them, and that they reported the abuse to church elders. They initially expelled the abuser from the congregation in 2004, then reinstated him the very next year, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claimed the local and national Jehovah's Witnesses organizations were negligent and violated a Montana law that requires them to report abuse to outside authorities.
San Francisco Teacher, Coach Accused of Sexually Assaulting Students
A former Bay Area high school teacher and coach was accused in August 2017 of sexually assaulting students for years, and that school officials had evidence about the alleged crimes and did nothing about it.
More than 2 dozen female students at John O’Connell High School in San Francisco are accusing PE teacher and soccer coach Bob Gamino of inappropriate sexual behavior, according to CBS San Francisco. Documents also indicate that administrators at the school were aware of the allegations but took no action.
Alysha Stone, former captain of the O’Connell High girls soccer team, blew the whistle on Gamino before graduating.
“There would be times when I would be injured, so I had to sit on the bench,” Stone said. “And he would like put his hand on my thigh.”
She said what began as verbal harassment at the beginning of the year turned physical by the spring semester.
“He like grabbed right under my breast on top of my ribcage and like, why would you grab there?” said Stone.
Another alleged victim who asked to remain anonymous said “He passed me and grabbed my butt and then just walked away. I thought it was an accident. Then it sunk in that it wasn’t.”
After Stone and the others came forward, the San Francisco Unified School District put Gamino on administrative leave and launched an investigation.
At least 30 girls have come forward accusing Gamino of verbally or physically assaulting them over the course of the school year, according to documents.
Decades-Long Search for Pedophile "Mr. Wonder" Ends With Arrest
A man who hosted a popular children's TV show in the 1970s and fled amid child sex abuse charges was arrested in January 2016.
Frank John Selas III allegedly fled from Louisiana to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1979 after learning that an arrest warrant had been issued amid allegations that he sexually abused at least 7 children during a camping retreat, according to CBS News.
Police said the alleged victims ranged in age from 5 to 11-years-old. Selas spent several years hosting the ‘Mr. Wonder’ show on Louisiana's KNOE-TV.
During the 1980s, police say he returned to the states using different aliases, spending time in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Illinois and California. Detectives learned that Selas had legally changed his name to Frank Szeles and was living in Bonita, Ca., a suburb of San Diego County.
After federal agents arrested him, he denied to a judge that he was Frank John Selas III. Back in Louisiana, however, investigators are certain they’ve got their man, but are worried he may have preyed on other children during his 37 years on the lam.
"It's absolutely shocking the level of access that this guy had to children, even now," said Steve Jurman, supervisory deputy U.S. marshal in San Diego. "If there's a playbook for pedophiles, he checked off every single box."
Selas once served as a Cub Scouts pack leader in Bonita, but was removed from the position several years ago after failing to comply with the organization's “youth protection policies and procedures,” according to statement by the Boy Scouts of America to NBC 7.
The man was also was removed from "all positions related to children" at his Mormon congregation in San Diego for failing to comply with "child protection policies," according to a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Los Angeles Football Coach Gets 36 Years in Prison for Sexually Abusing Players
A former Franklin High School football coach was sentenced in January 2017 to more than 36 years in state prison for sexually assaulting five boys.
Jaime Jimenez, 48, of Los Angeles, was a volunteer coach who assisted the full-time staff.
Authorities said that Jimenez’s abuse of young football players at the Highland Park high school stretched as far back as 2002 and that he actively pursued boys from then until his arrest in early 2015.
Jimenez pleaded no contest to two felony counts each of continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14 years old and lewd acts on a child 14 to 15 years old, and to one misdemeanor count of sexual battery. He was originally charged with 32 felony counts.
Jimenez’s many victims ranged from 13 to 16 years old.
During a preliminary hearing, several underage and adult witnesses testified that, over 14 years, Jimenez gave them rides from practice, bought them gifts and regularly invited students to his house to play computer games and to watch movies and football on TV. They frequently slept over; sometimes he supplied them with alcohol, they said.
He allegedly ratcheted up unwanted sexual contact, moving from touching to masturbation and sodomy. A fixture in the Franklin community, Jimenez knew many victims when they were in elementary school; one testified that the abuse began when he was 9.
Penn State Assistant Football Coach Sentenced to 60 Years for Sexual Abuse of Boys
In 2011, following a 2-year grand jury investigation, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009.
He met his molestation victims through The Second Mile; they were participating in the organization. Several of them testified against Sandusky in his sexual abuse trial. Four of the charges were subsequently dropped.
On June 22, 2012, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of the 48 remaining charges. Sandusky was sentenced on October 9, 2012, to 30 to 60 years in prison.
On October 18, 2012, Sandusky's lawyers appealed his conviction in civil court in Pennsylvania. They claim that they did not have enough time to prepare for their client's case.
On October 31, 2012, Sandusky was moved to Pennsylvania's SCI Greene "supermax" prison to serve his sentence. On January 30, 2013, Pennsylvania Judge John Cleland denied Sandusky's request for a new trial.
Catholic Sexual Abuse Claims Increased by Double Digits in 2011: Report
The number of reports of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests skyrocketed by more than 15% in 2011, according to an audit released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In 2011, there were nearly 500 credible reports filed against Roman Catholic priests or deacons nationwide. Sadly, the audit states that the vast majority of these violations were committed against minors under the age of 18.
In response to the mounting claims against priests and other clergy members, the Roman Catholic Church has spent approximately $144 million to date fighting the allegations, about $50 million of which was used for settlements.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, was quick to respond to the report, stating "we renew our promise to strive to the fullest to end societal scourge of child sexual abuse."
Barbara Blaine, founder of Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), went on record to say that while Catholic officials have improved their rhetoric in regards to these sensitive matters, the church itself has not done much to change its methods of operation.
"As long as the bishops allow predators to remain in the ministry without punishment we have to assume that children are at risk and that's it's possible that more will be sexually abused," said Blaine, who is a former victim of sexual abuse herself.
Clergy Abuse Update 5/25/12: This week, thousands of documents concerning nine Roman Catholic priests who settled a landmark clergy abuse lawsuit in 2006 were made public.
The newly-released files provide a detailed look into the accusations, as well as reveal instances when members of the clergy were allowed to interact with children despite their superiors being aware of previous indiscretions.
El Paso Catholic Church to Pay $1.6 Million Over Sexual Abuse
The Catholic Diocese in El Paso, Texas, was ordered in January 2012 to pay $1.6 million to settle a legal complaint involving allegations of sexual abuse by a former Cathedral High School Principal.
The complaint, which was filed in the 1st Judicial District Court of New Mexico, claims that Martinez molested the boys while they attended Cathedral High School during the late 70s and early 80s.
At the time of the alleged abuse, the Brothers of the Christian Schools, District of New Orleans-Santa Fe (NOSF), was under contract to run the school.
In 1993, Cathedral was incorporated under a nonprofit designation, and has since implemented a rigid policy on sexual misconduct and safe environment.
Sexual Assault Statute of Limitations
A "statute of limitations" is a state law that puts a time limit on the right to file a lawsuit seeking punitive damages after any kind of wrongful act.
A number of states have passed special statute of limitations rules for civil cases based on sexual assault or abuse of victims who were minors at the time of the offense.
A few states have even passed "lookback window" laws that designate a special time period in which victims are allowed to file civil lawsuits for financial compensation over abuse that occurred decades earlier.
Taking Action After Abuse
A variety of resources are available to survivors of childhood sexual abuse. And even when you're ready to seek justice by filing a lawsuit, the causes of action and liability covered in this article are not the final word.
A skilled attorney could potentially find any number of other legal theories that fit the facts of sexual abuse lawsuits.
In personal injury law, causes of action are intended to be flexible—society and the legal system recognize that a defendant who has committed a crime should not escape liability simply because their actions do not fit a pre-existing legal mold.
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