Can I file a lawsuit for sexual abuse in Pennsylvania?

Christopher J. Marzzacco - Personal Injury - General - Super Lawyers

Answered by: Christopher J. Marzzacco

Marzzacco Niven & Associates
Harrisburg, PA
Phone: 717-231-1640
Fax: 717-231-1650

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Typically, people think about sexual abuse and other violations being tried in criminal court. However, Pennsylvania state law allows survivors of sexual abuse to pursue justice in the civil court system as well.

Sometimes the criminal justice system does not provide enough justice and compensation for survivors. Those who have been abused or assaulted often experience lasting emotional and physical effects. A civil suit may provide financial relief and a sense of closure to people who are living with the effects of sexual abuse.

Do I have a case?

People who have been mistreated deserve justice under the law. Unfortunately, the validity of your claim is not always the best predictor of whether you can realistically bring a case. If the perpetrator is an individual without extensive insurance, it is usually difficult to collect significant financial damages. In these cases, a criminal proceeding is usually the best option.

However, sometimes perpetrators are employed by businesses that have the resources to pay a judgment against them. Examples of situations in which a survivor may be able to collect damages include:

  • An organization like a business, school or church knew or had reason to know about the perpetrator’s behavior and failed to take action.
  • An organization hired the perpetrator without conducting an appropriate background check.
  • A landlord, innkeeper or other property owner knowingly exposed tenants or guests to a known or suspected abuser.

Depending on the circumstances and the strength of a claim, and the responsible parties’ knowledge of what happened, these entities may prefer to confidentially settle out of court than go through a public trial and the resulting media exposure. It is up to the plaintiff to decide whether a cash settlement is worth an agreement to keep the matter confidential.

What about workplace sexual harassment and abuse?

A worker in Pennsylvania may not bring a lawsuit against an employer for sexual abuse that occurs in the workplace. These matters are handled through the state’s workers’ compensation system.

What if the perpetrator was found “not guilty” in a criminal case?

One major difference between criminal and civil proceedings is the standard of proof. In a criminal case, the prosecution must show that the defendant committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This high standard was put in place to protect against wrongful conviction and prevent innocent people from going to prison for crimes they did not commit. However, it often creates a high burden of proof that the prosecution cannot reach, even with significant evidence.

In a civil sexual abuse claim, however, plaintiffs must only show that the defendant perpetrated the abuse by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This is a lower standard than criminal cases, even though the behavior at the root of the case is the same. This means it may be possible to satisfy the burden of proof in a civil case, even where criminal charges have failed to hold the perpetrator accountable.

Simply put, an unsuccessful criminal case should not discourage a survivor from exploring the possibility of a civil claim.

Taking action

It is impossible to assign a dollar amount to the emotional and physical trauma that survivors experience. However, a civil lawsuit can provide financial assistance and justice to those who are working through a traumatic event. The laws governing civil abuse claims in Pennsylvania are complex, so it is wise to discuss your case with an experienced attorney. Your first consultation is free and confidential, and the right lawyer can help you understand your options.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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