THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CRIMINAL SEXUAL ABUSE AND CIVIL SEXUAL ABUSE CLAIMS

Criminal Courts Protect Society, Not Necessarily the Victim

Perpetrators of sexual abuse or assault face a host of consequences.  Unfortunately, a significant percentage of incidents remain unreported.  There is a difference in our justice system between criminal and civil liability.  Criminal liability is imposed by the state or the federal government.  Crimes against victims of sexual abuse must be advanced by a prosecuting authority.  While some restitution or money compensation may be awarded to victims and against perpetrators, as a general rule, the criminal courts are poor vehicles to obtain compensation for victims.  Criminal courts impose prison sentences or fines.  In addition, the rights of the victims are not protected in any realistic fashion.  No attorney is present during the process to act as an advocate for the rights of the victim.  Even the rules of proof are different.  Nearly everyone has heard of the criminal standard of proof of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  In other words, for an individual to be convicted of a crime, the jury needs to be nearly dead certain that the defendant is guilty.  Accordingly, there are many morally culpable people who can escape criminal liability because of understandable doubt in the proof.

Civil Courts Compensate the Victim

By contrast, the civil justice system is entirely about the victim.  Your attorney will advocate for your rights, and yours alone.  There is no vehicle, however, to punish the perpetrator with jail time.  There may be a vehicle to award punitive damages against a perpetrator.  In most jurisdictions, the standard to prove punitive damages is high.  In Missouri, one must prove that the defendant possessed an “evil motive” or was so insensitive to the rights of the victim that he or she acted with malice or conscious indifference to the rights and safety of the victim.  If punitive damages are awarded, they are rarely covered by insurance, and can only be collected from the personal assets and income of the defendant perpetrator.

However, the overall standard of proof in a civil case is relaxed, compared to that of criminal cases.  In a civil case, one must prove his case by a “preponderance of the evidence.”  Missouri defines this standard as a juror must simply “believe” that the plaintiff’s case is more likely true than not.  Most of us are aware of the “scales of justice.”  To provide a mental image of the standard, the scales need to be merely slightly tipped in favor of the abused victim.

While criminal courts are designed to punish, civil courts are designed to compensate victims.  Accordingly, the victim is allowed to seek money damages from the jury or court for the wide variety of damages that are inflicted as a result of sexual abuse; depression, loss of self-esteem, loss of relationships, post-traumatic stress disorder, lost income and lost earnings capacity, medical expenses, and frequently, a life-time of emotional distress.

None of such losses are the focus of criminal proceedings.

Finally, many civil cases, if won by the injured victim, may be compensated by insurance covering the acts of the perpetrator or his/her employer.  Insurance policies are confusing documents that frequently seek to limit the amount of compensation an insurance company may owe to compensate the victims of the insured-perpetrator.  Hence, retaining an attorney well-experienced in this area not only increases the chance the rights of the abuse victim will be properly protected, but increases the likelihood that the vagaries of an insurance policy written to limit coverage can be interpreted to compensate the unique injuries and damages of the victims.