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How to File a Civil Lawsuit for Child Sexual Abuse in California

By September 6, 2018January 29th, 2020Blog
Lewis & Llewellyn - How to File a Cilvil Law Suit for Child Sexual Abuse in California
This post was written before the passage of AB-218. For information regarding the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit for childhood sexual assault/abuse, click here or contact our team of experienced representatives.


Upon the discovery of potential child sexual abuse, there are several paths you may choose to take in your pursuit of justice and healing. Should you confront the perpetrator? File a police report? Call an attorney?

Filing a civil lawsuit for child sexual abuse in California is one possibility you might explore for holding the abuser accountable and recovering compensation related to your case. If you’re considering filing a lawsuit, this guide will cover who is eligible to file a civil lawsuit, who and what entities can be named as a defendant, the potential benefits of a civil action, what you need to know to file a civil lawsuit for child sexual abuse in California, and why you may want to work with experienced civil litigators rather than go it alone.

Who Can File a Civil Suit for Child Sexual Abuse in the State of California?

Child sexual abuse is defined in California as any sexual act involving a minor under 18 years of age. The child may file a civil lawsuit with the help of a “next friend” or “guardian ad litem,” such as a parent, older sibling, or other legal guardian. If you are a caregiver of a child affected by sexual abuse, you may also be able to sue for the emotional distress caused by knowing a child entrusted to your care was abused.

However, if you are an adult who was victimized as a child, the full impact of the sexual abuse may not become apparent until years later when you have trouble concentrating in school or maintaining employment due to depression, anxiety, and other latent emotional consequences. There are even cases where an individual’s discovery of abuse does not come to light until many years after the fact.

If you are an adult survivor who was sexually abused as a child, the State of California generally allows you to bring civil lawsuits until you are 26 years of age, or within three years of discovering physical harm or a psychological injury caused by sexual abuse, whichever period is later. There are, however, many exceptions to this rule, and there are numerous benefits to filing a lawsuit sooner rather than later. If you believe your case may be approaching (or has passed) the statute of limitations, reach out immediately to an legal team that specializes in navigating complex statute of limitation issues.

Who Can Be Named as a Defendant in Civil Cases Involving Child Sexual Abuse in California?

The list of defendants in civil sexual abuse lawsuits can go well beyond the perpetrator of the abuse. Molestation is often aided and abetted by institutions who turn a blind eye to complaints of inappropriate conduct. While the ultimate objective of any civil lawsuit is financial compensation, many find that holding institutions accountable for wrongdoing is a key step in the healing process as well.

In cases where the perpetrator is deceased or has no assets, seeking compensation from third parties that contributed to or condoned the abuse can provide an alternative route to just compensation. Often most importantly for victims, though, lawsuits brought at the organizational level can help enact meaningful institution-wide change to stop sexual abuse from happening again to another child.

Civil lawsuit defendants may include:

  • Children’s organizations like the Scouts or Big Brother programs
  • Children’s Aid Society for abuse committed by a foster parent
  • Public and private schools for offenses committed by teachers, coaches, or staff members
  • Daycare centers and owners for abuse committed by daycare workers
  • Religious institutions for assaults by priests, nuns, ministers, or other clergy members
  • Corporations for employing known sex offenders or ignoring complaints

The Differences Between Criminal and Civil Lawsuits Involving Child Sexual Abuse

In California, all criminal cases brought by the state district attorney, or D.A., are based on violations of the California penal code. The D.A. controls the proceedings, while you and/or the abuse victim serve primarily as witnesses.

Upon obtaining a plea bargain or a guilty verdict, a successful criminal case can result in a combination of the following:

  • A prison sentence
  • Fines, or or a court-ordered payment to be made by the convicted offender.
  • Mandatory counseling
  • Probation
  • Registry on the sexual offender list

California law, however, does not require that compensation be paid to the victims of sexual abuse upon a criminal conviction. With a civil lawsuit, a complaint is filed on your own behalf, or the behalf of your child, in civil court. The jury may be asked to award damages based on:

  • Medical expenses
  • Therapy costs
  • Lost earning capacity
  • Pain and suffering
  • Punitive damages

In the case of a civil lawsuit stemming from child sexual abuse, you will likely need to make critical decisions about whether or not to file a lawsuit, who to name as a defendant, whether or not to accept a settlement offer, and/or pursue a trial. If found liable, the abuser and enablers may be ordered by the court to pay monetary damages to compensate the victim and punish the perpetrator, as well as potentially the perpetrator’s employer or other third parties who knew about the abuse and turned a blind eye.

Why a Civil Lawsuit May Be a Good Option

Perhaps you and your family have already been down the criminal charges road. You’ve reported the abuse to the police only to find that the prosecution went nowhere. You’ve contacted the D.A. and cooperated with a police investigation, only to be blindsided when the state accepts a plea bargain for a lesser charge or decides not to pursue the charges at all. Discouraging as the legal system may sometimes be, choosing to pursue a civil lawsuit can still result in an award of just compensation.

One of the advantages of contacting an attorney to help you file a civil lawsuit is that the standard of proof is lower than it is for a criminal prosecution. You need only establish abuser and third party liability by a preponderance—or majority—of the evidence. Simply put, in a civil case, the judge and at least 9 out of the 12 jury members must agree that it’s at least 51% likely the alleged crime was committed, as opposed to convincing all 12 jurors the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as with a criminal case.

How to File Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Paperwork in California

To file a lawsuit for child sexual abuse in California, you will need several documents:

  • A civil case cover sheet: This document briefly outlines the names, addresses, and phone numbers of both parties; the general nature of the case; and the type and amount threshold of damages sought.
  • A legal complaint: This document describes the parties to the lawsuit, alleged offenses committed, the harm suffered, and the relief that is sought.
  • A summons notice to serve the defendant(s): The summons lets the other party know a lawsuit is pending and sets a timeline of 30 days within which a formal response must be provided. If the defendant does not respond, you may seek a default judgment.

As a civil case progresses, additional paperwork will be required, however, these three are the key pieces you need to start your lawsuit. The judicial council forms can be found on the California Courts website or at your attorney’s office. They must be completed in full and filed with a clerk at one of the Superior Courts in California, either in person or by mail. Filing fees may be required unless you are working with an advocate who pays the upfront expenses associated with your case.

Remember, at this stage, there is no burden of proof required. You need only allege facts that, if proven, would entitle you to legal relief.

Should You Consider Finding a Lawyer to Help with Your Civil Lawsuit?

It can be challenging to decide whether to press criminal charges or file a civil suit. If you’ve already decided, there is still a legal maze of paperwork in figuring out how to file a civil lawsuit for child sex abuse in California. Whether you are an adult victim or the parent of a victimized child, the aftermath of child sexual abuse may take you through the full gamut of emotions—but you don’t have to go through it alone. An experienced legal representative can act as your advocate, providing counsel and empowering control over the course of the proceedings.

Working with a California attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases is about more than legal advice and paperwork. Lawyers can also point you in the right direction for seeking medical attention, connecting with crisis social workers and counselors, dealing with insurance issues, and getting your life back in the wake of disturbing events that were beyond your control.

Whether you’re advocating for your child or are an adult seeking closure for abuse suffered years ago, Lewis & Llewellyn has the experience, grit, and compassion to help you obtain justice and maximum compensation. Contact our team online for support and guidance to see you through this emotional time, or call (415) 800-0590 to schedule an appointment with an advocate today.



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