Understanding a Criminal vs. Civil Lawsuit for Child Sexual Abuse

A little curly haired girl clutches her teddy bear as she looks out a window. Criminal vs. civil lawsuits can vary for child sexual abuse cases.

Families impacted by the tragedy of child sexual abuse may feel overwhelmed when it comes to understanding criminal vs. civil lawsuits. What are they, how are they different, what impact could each have on your child, and which one will help your child the most?

As parents ourselves, the sexual assault attorneys at The Pride Law Firm want you to know that you are not alone in your pain and heartache. We understand this is one of the most difficult times of your life, and we are here to provide answers.

This page helps outline the differences between criminal and civil lawsuits when it comes to child sexual abuse cases. As you read over the information here, please keep in mind that our firm offers a free, completely private legal consultation for families seeking legal guidance. You can reach us by filling out this brief form or calling our offices at 619-516-8166.

See Also: California Expands Child Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Along With Other States

What Is the Difference between Filing Criminal and Civil Charges Against a Sexual Predator?

There are foreseeable benefits to both criminal and civil lawsuits against perpetrators for sexual assault.


In a criminal case, the state files suit against the criminal. In order for a criminal case to succeed, the prosecution must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the perpetrator committed the crime. The evidence to support the survivor’s side of the story must be convincing beyond question.

If the criminal is found guilty, he or she is punished for their crimes, typically with jail time. Because the case is represented by the government, the survivor plays a lesser role in the proceedings, though their testimony may influence the degree of sentencing.

The benefit: Survivors can gain a sense of closure from knowing their assailant is behind bars, protecting other potential survivors from suffering the same crimes.


In a civil case, the assaulted person files suit against the perpetrator and other parties who may be directly or indirectly liable for injuries. Unlike a criminal case, the burden of proof must simply show that it is “more likely than not” the alleged events took place. The evidence must support the claims enough for it to be convincing to a jury or judge. This makes civil cases easier to prove.

If the defending party is found liable, they are ordered to financially compensate the sexual assault survivor for all losses and injuries resulting from the abuse. This can include:

  • Medical bills
  • Emotional pain and suffering
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Counseling or therapy services
  • Physical injuries

The benefit: Survivors can receive financial support to meet practical needs and offset the costs often incurred by enduring abuse. The facility or organization may also face other penalties, such as losing their license to operate or paying punitive damages.

All sexual assault is criminal, though not all sexual assault cases are tried in criminal courts. A lawyer will explain each process to you, as well as provide you with the guidance and professional insight you need to make the best decision for yourself.

What Happens in a Criminal Case for Child Sexual Abuse?

One of the key differences in a criminal vs. civil lawsuit is that in a criminal lawsuit, the government pursues the accused predator, not the child’s family. The state brings charges against the defendant through the district attorney.

Either a judge or jury will decide if the defendant is liable for the crimes based on the available evidence. This may or may not include a testimony from the child.

If the defendant is convicted, he or she faces punishment by incarceration and fines. Convicted child molesters can receive jail time, pay state fines, and be required to register as sex offenders for life. Criminal prosecution cases not only look out for the survivor’s best interest but also the safety of the general public.

Additional Benefits & Drawbacks of Criminal Cases for Survivors


A handcuffed prisoner in an orange jumpsuit sits in court. In a criminal vs. civil lawsuit, convicted child molesters face jail time.

Putting a child molester behind bars can give survivors and their families a sense of relief knowing that the perpetrator is removed from society, at least for the duration of their sentence. This can also prevent the offender from committing crimes against more survivors.

However, a survivor’s family may not always agree with the sentence or penalties the judge hands down. When this happens, the survivor’s family has little say or influence over what the judge decides. If a fine is too small or incarceration too short, criminal courts don’t allow the child’s family to argue for more severe punishment.


Another potential benefit is that survivors are also entitled to receive restitution for the crimes committed against them. This is a legal term for financial compensation owed to a survivor to make up for their losses.

As many know, child sexual abuse can inflict devastating and lifelong consequences, often resulting in untold psychological damage. Statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), survivors of child sexual abuse are four times more likely to develop substance abuse problems, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and three times more likely to have a major depressive episode in adulthood.

The long term financial costs of these damages can be overwhelming. For example, a 2017 report estimated that the financial cost of abusing a child in California was $270,000 per child. That means California pays $19.3 billion a year for the lifetime costs associated with an abused child (Safe & Sound).

Restitution can provide a measure of relief, but it focuses more on “economic” losses and is likely not enough to cover the projected long-term costs. Criminal courts do not allow a survivor’s family to ask for a higher amount than what the judge or prosecutor decides. They can severely undervalue the extent of a child’s injuries based on the lifetime effects of sexual abuse.

Burden of Proof

Both criminal and civil cases have what is called a “burden of proof,” which makes the suing party responsible for providing evidence to support their claim. For criminal cases, the evidence must show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the alleged crimes took place. In other words, the proof must remove all other possibilities for who is at fault, a high standard to prove.

Presenting convincing evidence in child sexual abuse cases can be challenging for a few reasons. To start, medical evidence is incredibly difficult to come by in child sexual abuse cases. A 2019 study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) showed that medical evidence is available in less than 5% of reported child sexual abuse cases.

Additionally, children may be asked to take the witness stand, which can be stressful and demanding no matter what age they are.

When it comes down to it, it is often the word of the child against the word of an adult. This may also be why the same study by the NCJRS showed that less than one in five reported cases of child sexual abuse goes to prosecution.

Criminal cases help offer a survivor justice in the form of punishment for their abuser, first and foremost. Though the child has legal representation, the lawyer’s objective is to prove the defendant’s wrongdoing, not advocate for their fair compensation.

What Happens in a Civil Lawsuit for Child Sexual Abuse?

Closeup image of a woman's hands tenderly touching a little girl's hands. Civil lawsuits focus more on the victim's compensation when it comes to criminal vs. civil lawsuits for child abuse.

In civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse, the survivor and their family bring the suit against the perpetrator. A personal injury attorney represents the child and their family, not the state or a district attorney.

With regards to criminal vs. civil lawsuits, civil lawsuits focus more on the survivor, their needs, and damages, versus on punishing the alleged perpetrator. Their primary goal is to seek fair compensation for the survivor’s injuries and losses.

Most civil lawsuits settle out of court, which means the survivor’s lawyer will negotiate fair compensation with the defendant’s lawyer. If they are unable to reach an agreement, the case can go to trial before a judge and jury.

How Civil Cases Can Help Survivors in a Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuit


A key advantage when it comes to criminal vs. civil lawsuits is that civil lawsuits allow the child’s attorney to seek the full amount of compensation the child will need to make the best possible recovery. Whereas a judge decides how much a survivor may be paid in a criminal lawsuit, a child sexual abuse lawyer can effectively argue for a survivor’s highest possible compensation in a civil lawsuit.

The benefits of compensation from a civil claim can last a lifetime and meet immediate as well as long term needs. These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Medical or hospital bills related to the abuse or injury
  • First-rate counseling services
  • Tutoring or alternative learning options
  • Relocation, if necessary
  • Therapy

Children and their loved ones may also be compensated for emotional trauma, pain, and suffering through a civil lawsuit. When a child is properly advocated for in civil court, he or she has a greater chance of healing from the trauma of sexual abuse.

Burden of Proof

Another advantage of civil vs. criminal lawsuits is that the burden of proof is lower (easier to prove) in civil lawsuits. The burden of proof in civil lawsuits is the “preponderance of evidence.” This means that the alleged predator must need to be found “more likely than not” liable for the acts committed against the child. To give a visual of this, the scales of justice only need to tip slightly in favor of the survivor.

However, this does not promise a successful outcome each time. Your case outcome will largely depend on the skill, experience, and knowledge of the child molestation lawyer you choose to represent your family.

When comparing criminal vs. civil lawsuits in child sexual abuse, a case can still be successful if a judge or jury finds the survivor credible.


Civil lawsuits can also have a ripple effect when it comes to holding people, organizations, or institutions accountable. For example, Boy Scouts of America faced a stream of child sexual abuse allegations in 2019 that gained a lot of media attention. More and more survivors came forward, leading Boy Scouts to eventually file for bankruptcy in February 2020.

Contact a San Diego Child Molestation Survivor Lawyer

At The Pride Law Firm, we understand the devastation and pain of child sexual abuse. Our firm has been helping survivors and their families overcome trauma and live better lives for more than ten years.

Managing partner Jessica Pride has represented multiple survivors in high-profile cases involving abuse by medical professionals, youth leaders, dentists, clergy, and others. Our child sexual abuse law firm uses trauma-informed training for each of our clients. We are also a well-known and trusted legal authority, educating other legal professionals on the specialties of sexual assault litigation.

If your child has been abused and you would like to know more about how the civil courts can help, please call us for a free, private legal consultation at 619-516-8166​. We will answer your questions anonymously and without obligation, and all information is held in the strictest of confidence.

Early Commuication for Parents

Criminal vs. Civil Lawsuit for Child Sexual Abuse FAQs

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How long do you have to file a lawsuit for child sexual abuse?

For both criminal vs. civil lawsuits, there are filing deadlines that survivors must act within. This is a term known in the legal realm as the statute of limitations, which is how long the survivor has to initiate a lawsuit.

The statute of limitations for sexual assault will vary based on state and when the last date of abuse occurred. In California, the laws are as follows:

Criminal Cases

If the survivor was an adult when the abuse last occurred, the prosecuting attorney has ten years to file charges against the accused. If the survivor was a child when the abuse occurred, the attorney has until the child’s 40th birthday to file the lawsuit. There are few exceptions to these limitations.

Civil Cases

If the survivor was an adult during the time of the abuse, they have either ten years from the date of the incident or three years after they discover a resulting illness or injury from the sexual abuse and the abuse took place before 2019.

Children who were sexually abused have a few options. Similar to the criminal statute of limitations, a civil lawsuit allows them to file until their 40th birthday or within five years of discovering the abuse. In addition to this, all childhood survivors of sexual abuse can file a civil lawsuit until January 2023 regardless of their age. This is due to a bill that lifted the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse claims for a three year period.

If you have questions about which time limits apply to your potential case, please contact our child molestation survivor lawyers at 619-516-8166.

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Can you file both a criminal and civil lawsuit for child sexual abuse?

Many clients ask if they can file both a criminal and civil lawsuit, and the answer is yes. Typically, criminal cases can take longer to resolve. survivors do not have to wait for a criminal case to close before filing a civil lawsuit. However, a civil case can also progress more easily if a criminal case already found the defendant guilty.

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Can survivors be compensated for both criminal and civil lawsuits?

Yes, in certain circumstances. Survivors and their families should be aware that even after they’ve received restitution through criminal courts, they can still seek compensation through a civil lawsuit. However, it’s important to keep in mind that any financial award you receive from one case can influence or even reduce the amount you receive from the other case. Whichever one settles first could help determine how much you ultimately receive from the second case resolution.

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