Making the causal connection
In the 1990s, many states adopted statutes of limitations that run from the time the victim makes the causal connection between the childhood abuse and the psychological damage it caused. This is because (1) children do not always realize that sexual conduct can be hurtful, and (2) there may be long-term psychological effects of sex abuse, such as sexual dysfunction or substance abuse, that do not become problematic until adulthood. In California, an adult victim may file a claim for childhood sex abuse at any time before age 26. For adults after age 26, there is no arbitrary age cut-off. Instead, the statute of limitations is three years from the time the victim makes (or should make) the causal connection. Often, the causal connection is precipitated by a particular and even tragic event. It may be as varied as a car accident, family crisis, little league game, or a counseling session. A qualified mental health practitioner may be very helpful during this critical time.
Determining who to sue
Notwithstanding any criminal liability, a perpetrator can be civilly liable for child sex abuse. The accused may, but need not, participate in a civil claim. If the perpetrator is deceased, for example, his estate may be the proper entity to handle the claim. You and your attorney may consider adding other persons and entities as defendants. An employer is liable for authorizing wrongful conduct by an employee, for ratifying wrongful conduct of an employee, and where public policy dictates the employer should bear the risk. For instance, the employer police department could be liable if its employee used his police uniform and squad car to gain access to his victim. Employer liability often depends on foreseeability, so prior similar acts or complaints are likely to be important evidence.
Knowledge or reason to know of unlawful sexual conduct
If you are suing a person or entity other than the perpetrator, California law requires you to prove that person or entity knew or should have known of prior unlawful sexual conduct by the perpetrator. You must also prove that the person or entity failed to take reasonable steps to safeguard against such misconduct. For example, a church could be liable if its clergy saw evidence of sexual misconduct in another priest's bedroom and failed to report it to their superiors, or if parents complained to their pastor about a priest's misconduct with children, and the pastor then allowed that priest to supervise a youth retreat where the victim is molested.
Intentional or negligent conduct
Another factor to consider is whether the defendants acted intentionally or negligently. The statute of limitations may be longer or shorter, depending on which kind of conduct you allege. Intentional conduct, if proved, may allow you to seek punitive damages. Negligent conduct, if proved, is more likely to be covered by insurance. A school is responsible for providing adequate supervision to its students. If the school's procedures require certain precautions be taken to protect a special needs student, and failure to follow those procedures results in molestation of the student, the school could be liable for negligence.
Stay up to date on legislative changes
As the field of psychology developed and as lobbyists and activists weighed in, the Legislature made a number of substantive changes to California's statute of limitations for adult victims of child sex abuse. Your claim must be timely filed according to the statute in effect at the time your claim arose. Make sure you consult an attorney who is familiar with the history of the applicable statute and any anticipated changes.