To Victims of Sexual Assault: Please Seek Legal Help
Navigating the legal system with strong legal representationBy Judy Malmon, J.D. | Last updated on October 18, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Sidney S. Royer
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Expert Testimony Helps Combat a Common Bias Against Victims of Sexual Assault
- The Importance of Timeliness in Pursuing Your Legal Rights
- You Can Bring a Civil Lawsuit Regardless of Criminal Prosecution
- Find an Experienced Lawyer for Advocacy and Legal Help
Sidney Royer, a Seattle-based victim’s rights and personal injury attorney, sees high-profile sexual assault convictions such as the one against Bill Cosby in 2018 as “another wakeup call for women and men who were victims of sexual crime. If someone could come forward against Bill Cosby, I think it makes it easier for people to discuss their own situation… If it could happen with him, other people less wonderful could be just as terrible.”
Royer represents victims of violent crimes in civil lawsuits. “A large number of our cases include sexual assault and some really gruesome things,” she says.
A civil lawsuit may be brought against the offender or against a third party if their negligence allowed a crime to happen or created circumstances for it to occur. A defendant might be an employer, hospital, or school. Royer has also handled cases involving clergy sexual abuse in actions against the Catholic archdiocese for negligent hiring or supervision.
Expert Testimony Helps Combat a Common Bias Against Victims of Sexual Assault
One crucial aspect of sexual assault cases is the use of expert testimony regarding victim behavior following sexual violence and trauma. This is particularly important when the offender is someone they know, such as a family member.
Evidence that a victim’s response was typical for those in such circumstances serves to overcome jury bias and attempts by the defense to discredit the victim for failing to report the incident to law enforcement at the time it occurred.
Royer has had to counteract this type of bias in her practice, as well. “People often think, ‘If this really happened, they would have reported it right away.’ But it’s a real thing that people who are abused, especially child sexual abuse, are not likely to bring it up right away.
“We represented people in one case where the abuse occurred 50, 60 years before the lawsuit,” Royer continues. “And the sense is, ‘Why the hell didn’t they bring it up before?’ But they were so frightened to talk about it—they felt guilty and responsible—that they had done something wrong. I had clients who were afraid to tell their parents or teachers for fear of getting in trouble.”
The Importance of Timeliness in Pursuing Your Legal Rights
One of the downsides of this delay effect, however, can be that a victim may not be able to acknowledge what happened to them in time to bring a civil suit against either the abuser. For example, in Washington state, where Royer practices, the statute of limitations for initiating a civil action against the offender is three years from the date of the offense.
Where the abuse occurred when the victim was a child, the time frame is much more lenient, allowing three years from the date the survivor recognizes the damage associated with earlier abuse. “Washington has one of the most liberal statutes on this in the country,” Royer notes.
Trauma research notwithstanding, Royer acknowledges that timely reporting of an assault will help with a civil lawsuit.
“If someone has been raped or assaulted, they should tell someone sooner rather than later,” she says. “It makes the civil case a lot easier when there’s contemporaneous reporting. So many places now have really good victim advocates who work with crime victims, and this can have the effect of encouraging reporting. Reporting to a therapist, even if they don’t go to the cops, is helpful because there’s a contemporaneous report before filing a civil suit.”
You Can Bring a Civil Lawsuit Regardless of Criminal Prosecution
Bringing a civil suit can be an option whether or not criminal prosecution is also pursued in the criminal justice system.
Royer says that she will usually wait until the criminal matter has been resolved before initiating a civil case in order to avoid any misplaced bias in the criminal case.
Even where a defendant is acquitted, the outcome of the civil case is dependent upon a less onerous standard of proof—more probable than not, as opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt—and therefore can provide an important resolution.
Find an Experienced Lawyer for Advocacy and Legal Help
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, seek legal assistance from a reputable personal injury attorney. Many attorneys offer free initial consultations to discuss your case, explain their legal services, and provide legal advice.
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