Can I Sue an Abuser If They Weren’t Convicted?

A look at the Colorado law allowing financial compensation for survivors of sexual abuse

By Ron S. Doyle | Last updated on March 3, 2023

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In 2021, Colorado lawmakers passed Senate Bills 73 and 88, landmark legislation that eliminated the statute of limitations for nonexpired claims of sexual abuse—and opened a three-year filing window for survivors of abuse that happened in 1960 or later. Before these laws took effect, survivors of sexual abuse, with some exceptions, had only six years from their 18th birthday in which to file civil claims against their abusers.

“The average person isn’t able to realize they’re abused until they’re in their 40s or 50s,” says Charles Mendez, an 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 civil claims against their abuser or an organization that knew—or should have known—that youth under their care were at risk. 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.

The countdown clock ends on Dec. 31, 2025. That leaves some 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.”

The Civil Suit Process

Greer says the 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.

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 evidence,’ which some people call 51% 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.”

If an Institution Is Involved

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.”

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.”

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