There are many ways survivors of sexual abuse may choose to cope with what’s happened to them. Many choose to place the abuse behind them, move away, and start fresh. But what if they’ve moved away and want to seek justice for the sexual abuse they endured in the past? Do they file a lawsuit in the state where they currently live? Or, are they required to return to the state where the abuse occurred to seek civil remedy?
Like most states, in California, sexual abuse lawsuits are governed by venue rules. If you would like to file a civil lawsuit, it’s best to consult with a team of legal experts to explore the best options for your case.
What Are California’s Venue Rules for Sexual Abuse Lawsuits?
In legal terms, the “venue” refers to the county or judicial district in which a plaintiff’s lawsuit is filed. Venue rules, found in the California Code of Civil Procedures, have been developed by state courts to protect the defendant from having the case filed in an inconvenient location and to protect both sides from unfair bias.
In a sexual abuse case, the correct judicial district is typically the one in which:
- the abuse (or majority of abuse) took place
- the defendant resides or conducts business
- the third party entity involved is headquartered or established
More than one judicial district can be deemed proper. “Forum shopping” is the term used by lawyers to describe the process of choosing where to file a plaintiff’s case when there are multiple venues possible. To avoid objections, most attorneys will go with the venue closest to the defendant’s home base.
What Are California’s Jurisdiction Rules?
There are also limits to the legal authority of each court to decide a case—which is referred to as “jurisdiction.” Before filing a sexual abuse lawsuit, your team will need to consider which court has jurisdiction over:
- The person you want to sue: Generally speaking, all California superior courts hold jurisdiction over a person living or conducting business in California. One exception might be if the sexual assault occurs on a military base, where a military court may hold reigning jurisdiction. Another exception may be granted for sexual abuse on sovereign land, which may be presided over by a tribal court.
- The legal issue for which you are suing: California superior courts are general jurisdiction courts that can weigh in on most issues, including sexual assault. By contrast, a small claim may be sent to limited jurisdiction courts, particularly if the damages are worth $25,000 or less; or a bankruptcy case will be sent to federal bankruptcy court, which has exclusive jurisdiction. Divorce is another type of exclusive jurisdiction court, since there are typically many of these cases.
How Does Choice of Venue Affect a Sexual Abuse Case?
Venue can significantly impact the value of a case in the following ways:
- Juror selection: If you have a trial by jury, the venue determines the jurors who will ultimately decide the case. Ideally, you want your case to be heard in front of a group of your peers—people who will understand what you went through and the effects that you may still endure as a result of the abuse.
- Convenience: Legal costs typically increase when parties need to travel significantly to handle litigation matters. Courts vary in their technology, with some capable of e-filing and others using a more traditional paper records system. Ideally, you’ll want to keep costs as low as possible, so these added expenses don’t cut into your settlement or award.
In addition to exploring the best venue, your legal team will also help you understand the differences between federal and state lawsuits.
Should you file a federal or state lawsuit?
Many sexual assault cases can be heard in state court when they involve events or people within the state boundaries. However, a federal court may claim jurisdiction over cases that arise from a question of federal law like civil rights (which may apply to sexual assault in a school or sexual assault by a police officer), or sexual discrimination (which may apply to sexual assault in the workplace). Federal district courts may also hear the case if you are suing someone from a different state or country and you are asking for more than $75,000 in damages.
Where should you file your sexual abuse lawsuit?
In choosing the unique venue to file a lawsuit, a plaintiff who is “forum shopping” may consider:
- “Which courthouse is closer to my home or work?” If possible, you may opt for a state court if the nearest federal court is hours away.
- “Which court has a longer statute of limitations?” If you have missed a deadline under state law and a federal question applies, you may choose to file suit in federal district court to take advantage of a federal law with longer statute of limitations.
- “Which judge will preside over my case?” Local state court judges sometimes uphold a judicial philosophy that makes them more likely to sympathize with plaintiffs.
- “What jury will be selected?” Jury selection boundaries may differ from state to federal court. Federal courts often use wider geographic areas in their selection process.
- “What does my attorney say?” Legal professionals can consult with you, free of charge, on a broad range of particulars regarding federal and state courts.
What if you file in the wrong court?
Filing a case in the wrong court is a misstep that could cause significant delays if the case is dismissed for “lack of jurisdiction.” You may be able to re-file your case—if the statute of limitations hasn’t run out before you are able. Sometimes your case can simply be remanded to a different court, but other times, a defendant may file a motion to get the case permanently dismissed. Taking a thoughtful approach to the case venue is always preferable.
Can you change the venue midway through trial?
Changes of venue are extremely rare. However, sometimes media coverage makes it impossible to exclude the possibility of juror bias. Legal teams can conduct extensive polling and produce published articles to demonstrate clear and compelling conflicts of interest and local bias. In some small towns, juror ties to the defendant can be proved, so it is possible to move the trial if absolutely necessary.
Lewis & Llewellyn Handles California Sexual Abuse Lawsuits
Deciding to pursue justice against sexual abuse is a major step in the right direction. Don’t let the complexities of state venue rules discourage you; leave those details to the legal professionals.
The attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn, a boutique firm in San Francisco, embrace the challenge of taking on a well-heeled defendant as they have deep experience representing survivors of sexual violence within the state of California and across the country. Their successful track record gives them continued confidence to take on cases against perpetrators of sexual abuse as well as large entities that played a role in the abuse. The National Law Journal named Lewis & Llewellyn among the nation’s “elite boutiques” for cases of sexual violence.
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