Survivors of childhood sexual abuse can experience trauma that will affect them for the rest of their lives. However, they may not be prepared to talk about their experiences until years later, when they are adults. By that time, they may find that the statute of limitations has expired, leaving them few options for pursuing justice against the person who abused them.
California and the federal government have tried to address this problem in recent years, and just this month, two California legislators introduced a new bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations altogether for civil lawsuits filed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Introduced by Assembly member Dawn Addis and state Senator Nancy Skinner, Assembly Bill 452 would remove California’s legal deadline for people who wish to file a civil lawsuit against the person who sexually abused them when they were children. The legislators said their bill follows in the footsteps of a similar federal bill signed into law last year by President Joe Biden.
Understanding the statute of limitations
A statute of limitations is a type of deadline imposed on many types of legal actions in both criminal and civil law. For instance, California law requires that prosecutors bring criminal charges against a robbery suspect within three or six years, depending on the severity of the offense. Likewise, a person who was injured in a car accident caused by a negligent driver generally must file a civil lawsuit against the other driver within two years of the accident.
There are good reasons for placing these deadlines on many types of legal actions. The chief concern is that the farther back in time the alleged offense took place, the harder it is to find evidence and to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. Unfortunately, these deadlines can lead to injustice in cases involving children who were victims.
In 2019, California revised its statute of limitations on sexual abuse of minors. For both criminal and civil charges, the statute of limitations is now generally 10 years or until the victim turns 40 years old.
It’s important to remember that the standard of proof for a civil lawsuit is lower than for a criminal prosecution. To convict a defendant of a crime, the prosecution must convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. A civil lawsuit does not necessarily go before a full jury, and the plaintiff must only convince the court by a preponderance of the evidence — that is, the court must believe that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable.