Even as society becomes more open to talking about sexual assault and sexual abuse, most instances of these crimes go unreported. In some cases, abusers convince their victims that no one will believe them, and even when that does not happen, seeking justice in the form of a lawsuit or pressing charges in a criminal case takes effort and requires talking about the abuse, sometimes in documents that will become a matter of public record. Many survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault find the prospect of reliving their trauma every day for years, and having their character scrutinized and details about their lives and families made public, becoming the subject of Internet gossip, and possibly having the court side with the abuser even worse than the prospect of the abuser not receiving any legal consequences for their actions. Some survivors decide that getting the courts involved will make it harder, instead of easier, to move on with their lives. Survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse should know, though, that even if the abuser has not faced criminal penalties, either because they were acquitted or because the criminal justice system decided, when the abuse was first reported, not to prosecute them, it is possible to seek damages in civil court, similarly to how people injured in car accidents or by medical errors seek damages. The lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP can help survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault seek justice in civil court.
The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Cases
The civil court system and the criminal court system operate differently, but both have a role in seeking justice for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. In criminal cases, the state brings a case against the defendant, and if the defendant pleads not guilty, a jury of 12 people who have no prior knowledge of the case will decide whether the defendant is guilty after hearing evidence from both sides. Defendants in criminal cases are protected by various legal rights, as detailed in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments and in U.S. Supreme Court decisions. These include the right not to be coerced or tricked into confessing to a crime (hence the right to remain silent), the right to be represented by a professional lawyer, and, if convicted, the right to an appropriate, but not excessive, punishment. The standard of evidence in criminal cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which means that the jury cannot return a verdict of guilty unless they are completely sure that the defendant committed the crime of which they are being accused. The judge then decides on a sentence for the defendant, which may include prison time, probation, or fines payable to the court. The judge may also order the defendant to pay restitution, which is money paid to the victims of the crime.
In civil court, one person or company (the plaintiff) brings a case against another person or company (the defendant). The plaintiff asks the court to order the defendant to pay the plaintiff a certain amount of money (the damages) equivalent to the financial losses that the plaintiff suffered as a result of the defendant’s careless or intentionally harmful actions (negligence). If a civil court rules against a defendant, the only consequence is that the defendant must pay money; no one goes to prison as a direct result of a civil court decision. The standard of evidence for winning a civil case is a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means that it is more likely than not that the plaintiff’s claims are true. Some civil trials have a jury, and some do not.
Justice for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
Most sexual assaults are committed by a person the victim knows, not by strangers. They are often people in a position of power over the victim, such as older family members, older family friends, work supervisors, and former romantic partners. The pre-existing social connection between the victim and the aggressor makes it more difficult for victims to seek justice, whether the assault was an isolated incident or whether it occurred on many occasions over a long time period. Often, years go by before survivors of sexual assault and other forms of violence tell anyone about what they have witnessed. Sometimes, even when someone else alerts the police that the victim may be in an abusive situation, the victim denies that any abuse has happened, because the victim fears consequences for themselves, the abuser, and people closely connected to both of them. This poses a challenge for gathering enough evidence to press criminal charges, let alone convicting the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.
Can You Sue an Abuser in Civil Court?
Although the law aims to prevent people from being unfairly convicted of crimes or receiving excessive punishments, it also contains protections for survivors of family violence and sexual assault. The physical, emotional, and financial damage caused by sexual violence do not disappear the minute that a jury returns a verdict of guilty or a judge hands down a prison sentence.
Therefore, the law allows survivors of sexual abuse and family violence to seek damages in civil court. Usually the defendant is the abuser who committed the abusive acts, but sometimes it is another party that had a legal responsibility to prevent the abuse but failed to do so (such as a school system, if the victim was a student and the abuser was a school employee). Anyone with knowledge of the situation may be able to present evidence, including the victim’s family members, doctors, co-workers, and mental health counselors. The amount you seek in damages can include economic damages (for your abuse-related medical expenses and the income you lost as a result of the abuse) and non-economic damages for pain and suffering. Recent changes to the statute of limitations have enabled survivors of childhood sexual abuse to seek justice in civil and criminal court after they reach adulthood.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP About Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence
HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP represents survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence in civil lawsuits against their abusers. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP to set up a consultation.