Can I Sue a Sexual Abuser If They Weren’t Criminally Convicted?
Yes, you can: A look at the Colorado law allowing compensation for survivors of sexual abuseBy Ron S. Doyle | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 13, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Marlo J. Greer and Charles R. Mendez
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- The New Timeframes for Taking Legal Action in Civil Court
- Damage Award Limits in Sexual Abuse Cases
- How Long Does the Civil Suit Process Take?
- There are Different Burdens of Proof in Criminal Court versus Civil Court
- Compensation if an Institution is Involved in the Sexual Abuse
- Finding an Experienced Attorney You Trust
In 2021, Colorado lawmakers passed Senate Bills 73 and 88, landmark legislation that:
- Eliminated the statute of limitations (time limit) for nonexpired claims of sexual abuse; and
- Opened a three-year filing window for survivors of sexual abuse that happened in 1960 or later.
Before these state laws took effect, victims of sexual abuse, with some exceptions, had only six years from their eighteenth birthday in which to file civil claims against their abusers.
The New Timeframes for Taking Legal Action in Civil Court
“The average person isn’t able to realize they’re abused until they’re in their 40s or 50s,” says Charles Mendez, a personal injury attorney at Denver Trial Lawyers.
“It’s really common for people to not come forward, for a host of reasons, until they are well into adulthood and they’re seeing an impact they never really appreciated before.”
Mendez says many of his cases, particularly those against clergy and schools, are related to abuse from decades ago.
Senate Bill 88 creates a one-time opportunity for those survivors of sexual abuse, which the law defines as sexual misconduct that occurred when the victim was a minor. Survivors may file a civil case against:
- Their abuser; or
- An organization that knew—or should have known—that youth under their care were at risk.
The countdown clock ends on Dec. 31, 2025. That leaves some sexual abuse survivors with less than two years to make a tough decision before they lose their right to bring a claim. “It takes a lot of courage to come forward and pick up the phone,” says Marlo Greer, managing attorney at The Greer Law Group, “and it takes even more courage to go through the process.”
Damage Award Limits in Sexual Abuse Cases
The law sets a maximum amount recoverable of $500,000 for most claims.
However, in exceptional cases, the court may award punitive damages that bring the total compensation to $1 million.
How Long Does the Civil Suit Process Take?
Greer says the civil lawsuit process can sometimes take years, starting with a discovery phase when evidence is gathered.
That means the client must share details about what happened, which can be difficult. “We always want people to know they have a safe space where they call us, and that we will believe them,” she says.
There are Different Burdens of Proof in Criminal Court versus Civil Court
Even if the abuser was found not guilty of criminal charges, a survivor may still be able to file a civil claim against them. “On the criminal side, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt,” says Mendez. “But on the civil side, you only need a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ which some people call 51 percent proof.”
Because financial compensation is the primary result of these civil suits, sometimes the biggest limiting factor in these cases is not evidence—it’s money. “If the perpetrator doesn’t have any money,” says Mendez, “it extremely limits our ability to be successful in these claims.”
Compensation if an Institution is Involved in the Sexual Abuse
There are other avenues, however, that a survivor can explore. Senate Bill 88 ensures that organizations such as churches, schools, and youth programs can be held responsible if they were aware of the abuse or if they fostered an environment that increased the risk of abuse. So, a survivor may file a suit against the organization when the abuser has no assets of their own.
“We cannot make a person whole again, and we cannot give them what was taken away from them,” says Greer. “But we can get them financially compensated so that they are able to move forward with their lives and hold the perpetrator accountable, especially if the criminal system has not.”
Finding an Experienced Attorney You Trust
Because trust can be a major issue for survivors, Greer says it’s critical that they find an attorney who behaves in a trustworthy manner, who is willing to listen, and who will believe them. “They are reliving a horrific time in their life,” she says. “It’s not an easy process, but we understand what they’re going through and really try to find a way to help them.”
Mendez believes the new laws are creating the foundation of a civil rights movement for childhood sexual abuse victims. “The law is changing to favor victims over perpetrators and the institutions that harbor them,” he says.
Although the process can sometimes be retraumatizing, he hopes that survivors feel empowered by the changes. It’s an opportunity to take control over the traumatic experience and hold their abusers accountable: “You have legal recourse, you have legal rights, and you can find someone who’s going to fight for you.”
Visit the Super Lawyers directory to find an experienced personal injury lawyer in your area for legal advice and guidance through the legal process. For more information about this legal area, see our overview of sexual abuse law.
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