How Criminal Sexual Assault Charges and Civil Lawsuits Interact

The victims of sexual assault often have to navigate both the prosecution of criminal sexual assault charges and civil lawsuits. Each legal proceeding has its own process, its own rules, and its own possible outcomes. Knowing how the two interact can be important to weathering the storm and moving toward healing.

In this blog post, I will discuss how criminal sexual assault charges and civil lawsuits by the victims interact. Using a lawsuit filed by “Victim-1” against Jeffrey Epstein’s estate as an example, I will discuss the differences in timing and levels of certainty, as well as the possible benefits and compensation for victims coming from each case. I will also explain why victims need their own attorney, even at the criminal stage.

“Victim-1” in Jeffrey Epstein’s Criminal Sexual Assault Case Files a Her Own Civil Lawsuit

National and local news outlets have been flush with articles about the late billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. A decade after Epstein pleaded guilty to Florida-state prostitution charges, New York prosecutors and their federal counterparts in the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) unsealed an indictment of their own. The indictment claimed that Epstein was the operator of a sex trafficking ring involving 66 girls as young as age 14. Epstein was said to have appeared naked or in a robe before the girls and ask them to provide him with massages and sexual services. He then paid some of his victims to recruit others into the ring.

Epstein was put in jail while the criminal sexual assault case was pending. Then, on Saturday, August 10, 2019, he hanged himself in prison, effectively ending the criminal prosecution.

But that didn’t stop Epstein’s victims from seeking justice and compensation for the harm he had caused. The woman identified as “Minor Victim-1” in the New York indictment announced that she was filing a civil lawsuit against Epstein’s estate as one of hundreds of lawsuits already filed under the New York Child Victims Act’s one-year look-back window. The plaintiff in the case identifies herself as Jane Doe for safety reasons. Her complaint lays out a story of worsening sexual assault against a teenager in dire financial straits and looking for ways to support her mother and sick sister.

According to the indictment, “Minor Victim-1” was recruited by Epstein in 2002 at the age of 14, while she was living with a friend. Her mother and sister were sharing one bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment at the time, and renting the second to boarders to help pay for her sister’s medical condition.  An older teenager in the neighborhood told Doe “about an opportunity to earn money” by introducing her to “a wealthy man” who turned out to be Epstein. When she arrived at his home (which she described as a castle), he asked her age before disrobing and laying face down on a massage table. When Doe did as he asked and massaged him, the scene quickly turned sexual. Epstein then paid Doe $300.  This situation was often repeated until Doe turned 17, with the visits becoming more frequent and the sexual abuse more severe over time. Doe’s complaint also said that Epstein’s assistants, Sarah Kellen and Lesley Groff, assisted in scheduling the meetings, recruiting new girls, and paying Doe for her services.

Victims Have Little Control Over Criminal Sexual Assault Charges

When the victims of child sexual assault or their parents report sexual misconduct to the police, formal criminal sexual assault charges often follow. But even though the act happened to the victim, she or he often has little control over what happens in criminal court. State prosecutors will complete their investigation, file criminal sexual assault charges against the defendant, and negotiate plea deals, often without consulting with the victim or his or her family. The sexual assault charges are “crimes against the state”; the victim is simply a witness.

Convictions in criminal sexual assault cases are also often outside the victims’ control. Because these are criminal charges, they must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and must follow all the rules about police conduct and admission of evidence. Sometimes that means a slip up in the way the police handled the investigation, or a strange answer at trial can stand between victims and the justice they deserve.

When criminal sexual assault charges do result in convictions, the sentencing is an important moment for the victim in the case. She or he is entitled to submit a statement about how the crime affected her or his life, and can often be awarded restitution for the financial costs connected to the crime. Standing up and telling a judge about sexual assault can be hard. If you have been wrestling with the effects of rape or sexual assault, a sentencing hearing can be traumatic. You need an advocate to stand with you, help you make your statement, and get all restitution available in your case.

Civil Lawsuits for Sexual Assault Crimes

Jane Doe will never have the chance to stand up in a criminal court and tell her story. Epstein took that from her along with her own life. But that doesn’t mean she can’t be compensated for the harm he caused. When a criminal prosecution falls apart, or when a victim’s damages extend beyond the financial reach of restitution, he or she may choose to file a civil lawsuit for personal injury based on the abuser’s intentional acts.

Unlike in criminal cases, civil lawsuits put the victim in control of his or her own case. You and your attorney work together to build the case and collect evidence. You have a say in when and how the complaint is filed, and are involved in every step of the process. Most importantly, you have the final say on any potential settlement.

Civil lawsuits also have a broader reach than their criminal counterparts. They can be successful even when there isn’t enough evidence to reach “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Under the Crime Victims Act they can also be filed later, giving victims more time to come to terms with their abuse. The damages in a civil lawsuit can also include more than just financial costs, like disability, mental harm, and pain and suffering.

Finally, a civil lawsuit lets the victim and her or his attorney tell the story of the case. Plaintiffs are permitted to testify at length about what happened and what it did to them. They can present witnesses to support their case and tell about what happened afterward. This gives plaintiffs like Jane Doe the opportunity to speak out against their abusers in a way criminal cases often don’t.

How Criminal Sexual Assault Charges and Civil Lawsuits Interact

When criminal charges and civil lawsuits happen because of the same behavior, it is important to consider how the two proceedings will affect one another. This is a complicated question that is best discussed with an experienced sexual assault attorney. However, some common interactions include:

  • Evidence presented by prosecutors can be used in later civil trials
  • Testimony and admissions of abusers are admissible even if they change their tune later on
  • A guilty plea or conviction is often proof of illegal conduct, simplifying the civil case
  • Anything the defense attorney gets the victim to say can come back up in the civil lawsuit
  • Restitution ordered in the criminal case can’t be part of the civil lawsuit
  • Long prison sentences may prevent abusers from paying their settlements or judgments in civil cases

An experienced sexual assault attorney can guide you through both the criminal case and your own civil lawsuit against your abuser. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, team of sexual abuse attorneys know how to navigate both systems and will work for you to fight back against child sexual abuse. We can meet with you and your family at our headquarters in the heart of New York City, or conference with you remotely, to help you find protection and compensation through criminal sexual assault charges and civil lawsuits. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to a sexual abuse attorney.

New York Look Back Window Gives Sexual Assault Survivors One Year to Speak Up

Sexual assault survivors face fear, trauma, and social stigma when they step forward to name their abusers. Even moreso when the abuser was a priest in a Catholic church. It can take years, even decades, to decide to take that step. The passage of New York’s Child Victims Act says for long-past assaults, the time to speak up is now.

In this blog post I will review the story of Charlie d’Estries, who identifies as a sexual assault survivor after an incident of abuse by a local priest 50 years ago. I will explain how a New York law creates a one year look back window, giving the victims of long-past abuse one last chance to receive justice.

A Catholic Priest, Billy’s Buddy, and Decades of Healing

Charlie d’Estries was a young boy when he became a sexual assault victim. He told the New York Times that he remembered sitting naked together with his childhood priest and their relationship became sexual. But that didn’t mean he felt like a victim. d’Estries explained that realization didn’t come until 2018, when he attended a reunion for his Catholic school on Long Island. He connected with a nun who had known him as a student. She referred to him as “Billy’s buddy”, referencing his close relationship with the priest.

That’s when, as a 63 year old adult, d’Estries realized that his memories were that of abuse. It caused everything to shift for him. He was deeply shaken as he came to see himself as a sexual assault survivor, and he wanted justice. But the law, at that time, said that d’Estries had waited too long to speak up.

New York Child Victims Act Creates Look Back Window for Sexual Assault Survivors Like d’Estries

When d’Estries had his realization, New York law said that he was 40 years too late to file a lawsuit or seek justice. The state’s statute of limitations said that sexual assault victims had to file their claims within 5 years of turning 18. In other words d’Estries would have needed to come forward before he turned 23 in 1978. The sentiments around same-sex relations and sexual assault were very different then. Even if d’Estries had wanted to name his abuser, the social stigma of coming forward in the late 70s may have kept him silent.

Then the New York state legislature decided to make a change. In January 2019, lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations, giving sexual assault victims more time to come forward and see justice done. Criminal cases now have an extra 5 years (the same 5-year statute of limitations does not start running until the victim turns 23). In civil cases, survivors have even more time to come forward. A civil lawsuit for damages in cases involving sexual abuse, incest, or child pornography with a child victim can now be filed anytime until the victim turns 55 years old. But that would still leave d’Estries and others like him on the wrong side of the deadline.

The legislature seemed to recognize that their law could create an unfair situation. People like d’Estries never had a chance to deal with the effects of child sexual trauma as adults before filing their lawsuits. But those who grew up and had their experiences later would have decades to heal before making the decision to come forward. To account for those caught in that gap, the Child Victims Act created a one-year look back window.

For one year — between August 14, 2019 and August 14, 2020 — anyone can file a lawsuit for childhood sexual assault, abuse, or pornography, no matter how long ago the events happened. The law puts the statute of limitations on hold during that one-year look back window, and even allows anyone who missed their deadlines before to refile their cases. That means if someone’s lawsuit was dismissed for violating the old 5-year statute of limitations or because they didn’t file the proper notices, they can refile the lawsuit now under the Child Victims Act and get justice.

Other States’ Child Victims Laws Promise Thousands of Sexual Assault Lawsuits This Year

New York isn’t the first state to expand protections for sexual assault survivors. In 2019 alone, 40 states have introduced similar laws — 18 of them have gone into effect. New Jersey’s law, which went into effect May 13, 2019, gives sexual assault survivors 2 years to come forward in its look-back window.

These laws promise to bring a lot of litigation with them into the court systems. In 2003, California passed a similar law containing a look-back window. In the year that followed, sexual assault survivors filed over 1,000 lawsuits, most against the Catholic church. Eventually, the Diocese of San Diego had to file for bankruptcy because of all the claims against it. New York has eight Catholic dioceses that will likely face lawsuits by people like d’Estries who were sexually assaulted by their priests. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York (including Manhattan) has already sued its insurance providers to make sure there will be money available for the victims who come forward.

The law also comes on the heels of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Many of the women (and men) who came forward told stories that were too old for litigation, until now. The look back window has opened the door for lawsuits against Jeffrey Epstein’s estate and other New York heavy hitters who thought they had waited out the storm.

Get Help Coming Forward to Report Sexual Assault

The Child Victims Act makes legal action available to the victims of long-ago sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Sexual assault survivors will each need to decide for themselves whether justice is more important than the publicity and stress that comes with a high-profile lawsuit.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have a team of attorneys who know how to fight back against sex abuse and sexual harassment. Led by Attorney Adriana Alcalde, our sexual abuse attorneys will stand beside you and advise you as you make the decision to speak up. We will work hard to help you tell your story and get the justice and compensation you have waited for so long. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.