By legal definition, a “personal injury” refers to injury to a person’s physical body or mind, rather than property damage. A lawsuit may be filed when a person’s injuries can be traced to another party’s recklessness, negligence, malice, or breached duty of care. Personal injury attorneys commonly represent motor vehicle accidents, slip-and-falls, assaults, dog bites, workplace accidents, medical malpractice, and defective medications or products.
Technically, sexual abuse is considered a type of personal injury, though it’s important to find a law firm specializing in this niche. In many ways, sexual abuse is not a straightforward personal injury claim. It takes a skilled, persistent team of attorneys who understand the subtle nuances of the law to win these cases.
How Sexual Abuse Cases Are Different From Personal Injury Cases
In a car accident, for example, you may wait until you’ve healed and completed physical therapy or rehabilitation before filing a lawsuit. It might take you a year before you realize the full extent of your injuries and the ongoing trauma associated with the initial accident. Rarely do individuals wait to file a claim after a car accident that resulted in a personal injury. The financial burden of most personal injury cases is evident immediately and the need to pay one’s medical bills drives many plaintiffs to file as soon as possible, particularly because they have missed time off work and suffered a loss of income in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
On the other hand, latent filing is a common issue in cases of sexual abuse, particularly childhood sexual abuse, where the pain is often emotional in nature. Oftentimes, survivors of childhood sexual abuse don’t understand the wrongfulness of the abuse or its pernicious damages until years later, and therefore don’t come forward immediately following the abuse. Additionally, sexual abuse is intentional in nature, rather than negligent or accidental, so victims may fear retaliation from the abuser if they speak up.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations refers to the deadline for filing a lawsuit or pressing criminal charges. Each state has its own laws, which are subject to change. For personal injury cases in California, plaintiffs have two years from the date of the injury to file a civil lawsuit. When it comes to the statute of limitations for incidents of sexual abuse in California, the deadlines differ for pressing criminal charges or filing a civil lawsuit. California’s SB 813 outlines the statute of limitations for pressing criminal charges against a sexual abuser. The deadline for filing a civil lawsuit depends upon your age and when the abuse occurred.
Section 340.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure sets the legal deadline for filing civil charges of child sex abuse to “within 8 years of the date the plaintiff attains the age of majority (age 26) or within 3 years of the date the plaintiff discovers that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by sexual abuse, whichever occurs later. The code also provides for a delayed discovery period of three years. This means that your lawsuit will be timely if it is filed within three years after the date the victim discovers the connection between the injury they have suffered and the abuse itself.
Even if you think your statute of limitations has expired, a skilled legal team can often find loopholes or exceptions to the general rule that will enable your case to be settled or heard by a jury.
Many personal injury claims are filed against another motorist or an assailant. In cases of sexual abuse, the abuser isn’t the only one who can be held responsible. Often, the abuser is someone in a position of trust, respect, and authority—a teacher, priest, scout leader, manager, doctor, or coach—placed in this position by an organization. Multiple parties can be liable which means litigating against large and well-funded entities that are focused on their reputation such as school districts, national organizations, athletic programs, nursing homes, churches, and daycare facilities.
Lack of Evidence and Witnesses
There is the potential for many witnesses to come forward in a car accident taking place during rush hour. Security cameras can pick up a premises liability accident. Most injuries happen in public places, where others may witness. Attending physicians are often willing to testify on behalf of their patients as to the injuries sustained. Maintenance records and internal memos subpoenaed can serve as crucial evidence in premises, automotive, or corporate liability cases.
Sexual abuse cases require much more time spent during the discovery phase of investigation. Unlike many personal injuries, most sexual abuse injuries occur in private places and behind closed doors. Because such cases often involve few eyewitnesses aside from the victim and the perpetrator of the abuse, and the physical evidence is often limited, these cases require thoughtful strategy to pursue.
Damages are determined in a standard personal injury case like a slip-and-fall or car accident by adding up the medical bills, lost wages from days off work, and tacking on a percentage of these tangible losses for emotional hardship. Medical and auto insurance adjusters are often called in to provide an assessment of the damage done.
With a sexual abuse case, the bulk of a victim’s damages are emotional, rather than physical. It’s not as simple as looking at the cost of surgery or a hospital stay. Attorneys must work with a team of experts, including psychologists, to assess the past, current, and future unseen damages caused by the abuse.
Adding to the difficulty of determining the damage caused by sexual abuse is the fact that some victims repress the memories of the abuse for years or even decades. And some impacts are only seen at later stages of one’s life. For example, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse may suffer new harm related to their abuse later on in their life.
Choose a Specialized Civil Attorney for Your Case
Sexual abuse cases are different from personal injury cases. Many law firms claim to handle sexual abuse cases, but you don’t want to hire an attorney who spends 90% of their time pursuing car accident claims. You want someone who understands the intangible nature of your suffering, someone who knows how to argue for an extension for statute of limitations, and someone who can find the experts necessary to act as valuable witnesses.
DISCLAIMER: The information in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this blog or on this website should be construed as legal advice from Lewis & Llewellyn LLP. Neither your receipt of information from this website, nor your use of this website to contact Lewis & Llewellyn LLP creates an attorney-client relationship between you and the firm or any of its lawyers. No reader of this website should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this website without seeking the appropriate legal advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s jurisdiction.