Litigation Strategies for Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

Policy & Practice

Katie Shipp, Pennsylvania

When the statute of limitations is not an issue, cases involving sexual abuse that happened long ago can still raise significant barriers for victims. Locating evidence is often challenging. Witnesses, or people the victim told about the abuse, can be difficult to track down and often their memories may be unclear, especially about critical dates and times. Further, documentary evidence may have been destroyed or buried in a long-forgotten archive.

In cases of abuse within an institution, it may be necessary to rely on the institution, which is at risk of being sued, to gather and share evidence. This can be a battle since the institution will unlikely willfully share incriminating information without civil discovery or a court-ordered subpoena. Without this evidence or a clear understanding of exactly what kind of evidence might still be locatable, an attorney may be unwilling to pursue the case on contingency alone and the client may not be able to advance the significant litigation expenses.

These issues make the possibility of successfully litigating a case less likely. Although settlement is always a possibility, clients may face a moral dilemma when asked to settle a case that frequently includes a requirement of absolute confidentiality. It is often difficult for victims to balance their idea of “justice” with the value of the case from a legal perspective and what the offender or institution is willing to pay.

Just because a statute of limitations is extended or eliminated does not mean a plaintiff wins. Statutes of limitation only prevent access to the courthouse door. Once inside, a plaintiff must still present, prove, and actually win the case. “Access” does not always mean “justice” and careful client counseling is necessary to give victims perspective on exactly what the court process can and cannot provide. Fortunately, most victims gain strength and vindication from the process itself. Win or lose, having their day in court is truly cathartic for many victims. Holding individuals and institutions accountable is perhaps the best definition of justice attorneys and advocates can provide for their clients.

Litigation Strategies for Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

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