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Washington State Statute of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse

The Washington State legislature is considering a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to commence legal action against perpetrators and responsible institutions.

If passed, HB 1618 would allow anyone who suffered childhood sexual abuse in Washington State to seek justice against their perpetrators and the institutions that failed to keep them safe, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

Learn more about the importance of HB 1618:

What is a civil statute of limitations?

The law in Washington State allows individuals to seek recovery of monetary damages for injuries suffered because of childhood sexual abuse. The statute of limitations limits how much time a person has to file civil lawsuits for wrongdoing.

The civil statute of limitations is different from the criminal one. A civil legal action involves filing a lawsuit to seek financial compensation for the survivor. A criminal action involves the police and can result in potential jail time or fines for the perpetrators, which would be paid to the state, not the survivor.

In civil actions, an abuse survivor can seek monetary damages not only from the perpetrator of the sex crime but also any institution that failed to prevent it.

What is the current statute of limitations for child sex abuse in Washington State?

Currently, there is no statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse for minors under 18 to sue abusers.

Washington State statute gives adults over the age of 18 three years to file a civil childhood sexual abuse action from:

  • The time of the act itself
  • The time the victim discovered that an injury or condition was caused by the act
  • The time the victim discovered that the act caused the injury

This means that in Washington State, you can sue for childhood sexual abuse many years, or even decades, after the abuse occurred. The clock starts running from the moment a survivor connects the injury to the abuse.

Here is a hypothetical example: An adult woman in her early 30s decides to seek treatment for lifelong anxiety, recurring depression and chronic sexual dysfunction. During therapy she recalls a repressed memory of being raped as a child at church. Even though the act happened decades ago, the statute of limitations clock begins running when the woman recalls the rape and connects it to her mental health problems.

The same principle applies if someone remembers childhood abuse but tries to suppress it until years later as an adult they realize it is causing ongoing mental health problems that can no longer be ignored.

 

What are the injuries arising from child sexual abuse under Washington State law?

Childhood sexual abuse causes severe emotional and psychological trauma. An experience can be so overwhelming to a child’s undeveloped nervous system that memories of the trauma may be repressed, or the victim may dissociate.

Regular abuse may result in complex trauma that fundamentally disrupts a child’s physical, mental and emotional development.

Washington State law says, “The legislature finds that…childhood sexual abuse is a traumatic experience for the victim causing long-lasting damage. The victim…may repress the memory of the abuse or be unable to connect the abuse to any injury…The victim may be unable to understand or make the connection between childhood sexual abuse and emotional harm or damage until many years after the abuse occurs.”

The effects of sexual violence can include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Flashbacks
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dissociation
  • Panic attacks
  • Substance abuse
  • Disordered sleep
  • Sexual dysfunction

Many children may not immediately realize they experienced abuse. Many abusers groom their victims or disguise their abuse as something else, such as play or medical treatment. There is no way to predict how or when survivors of trauma will make the connection between abuse and the injuries it caused. In fact, most adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse don’t come forward until their 50s or later. This is why it is important for states to abolish the statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.

There is also no way to predict how long it will take for a survivor to heal from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse once they begin treatment. Civil lawsuits allow survivors to recover damages that can help cover these expenses, hold perpetrators and institutions who fail to protect children accountable, and encourage institutions to better protect children in the future.

What is child sexual abuse under Washington State law?

Childhood sexual abuse in Washington State includes, but is not limited to, rape in the first, second and third degrees; child molestation in the first, second and third degrees; sexual misconduct with a minor in the first and second degrees; sexual exploitation of a minor; and voyeurism.

The legal names of these crimes change over time, but generally, survivors of abuse can file a civil action for any incident that constituted a sex crime at the time of the abuse.

Survivors ready to come forward should consult with an experienced attorney to determine how to proceed with claims.

Who is responsible if I was abused as a child?

The institutions we trust to care for children have a legal responsibility to keep them safe. The attorneys at PCVA have successfully argued this fundamental legal principle in innumerable cases, securing hundreds of millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for their clients. This legal responsibility extends to:

  • Schools, which are responsible for the sexual misconduct of employees
  • Religious organizations, including churches, whether perpetrators were clergy, lay employees, or volunteers
  • The state, in the case of abuse that occurs in foster care or other forms of state supervision, such as juvenile detention or probation
  • Private institutions, such as businesses or recreational organizations
  • Healthcare facilities, such as hospitals and physician practices
  • Rehabilitation and substance abuse centers and programs

Thanks to PCVA attorneys, the Washington State Supreme Court also has recognized that sexual abuse and assault as gender-based discrimination subject to “strict liability” under the Washington Law Against Discrimination. This means that schools, hospitals and other “places of public accommodation” are liable to survivors for sexual abuse or assault committed by their employees or volunteers no matter whether the institution claims it took adequate steps to protect children.

Who pays if I win or settle my sex abuse lawsuit against a school, church or facility where I was abused?

Institutions that have a legal responsibility to keep a child safe are required to carry insurance. Those insurers will cover the cost of the settlement or jury award.

It’s important for anyone who suffered childhood sexual abuse to remember that what they experienced was a severe injury, with harm that can last a lifetime.

If an institution fails to maintain its premises and a falling brick injures someone on the head, that person is entitled to seek financial compensation under an insurance policy. These places have a legal obligation to keep people safe while on the property — especially children. Sexual abuse is no different in this sense.

How can I protect my privacy if I file a lawsuit for childhood sexual abuse?

Many courageous survivors have come forward and disclosed the horrors of abuse to hold powerful institutions accountable. It’s understandable that many others prefer to maintain their privacy. The law usually allows attorneys to file lawsuits on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse using a pseudonym, like “John Doe” or “Jane Doe,” or our client’s initials. Moreover, it may be possible to resolve your case privately without filing a lawsuit or going to court.

The attorneys at PCVA take a survivor-oriented, trauma-informed approach to child sexual abuse litigation. They understand the strength, courage and emotional investment it takes for someone to come forward and disclose these deeply disturbing experiences to strangers. They compassionately guide their clients through the legal process and serve as fierce advocates for survivors to receive the resources they deserve to heal from trauma.

How long does the legal process take once a lawsuit is filed?

Once a survivor is ready to contact an attorney, lawsuits generally take 1.5 to 3 years to move through the legal system.

How much do you charge?

Our work is done on a contingency basis. This means that you do not pay us on an hourly basis and we advance the costs of litigation. If we help you resolve your case, we receive a percentage of the amount you receive and you reimburse us for the costs we advanced on your behalf.

If you or someone you know experienced sexual abuse or assault as a child, our attorneys are here to listen and help. Learn more about how we help sexual abuse survivors or schedule a no obligation consultation with one of our lawyers by completing our intake form or by calling us at (253) 777-0799​ or (206) 462-4334. 

Our Case Results

Below are just some of our results in cases involving sexual abuse. To see more, visit our case results page.

$25M Settlement Reached in Olympia Early Learning Center Sex Abuse Lawsuit
$7.5M Settlement Reached in Coach Sexual Abuse Case Against Black Hills Football Club
$4.9M Settlement Reached in Toutle River Boys Ranch Sex Abuse Lawsuit
$4.2M Settlement Reached in Coach Sexual Abuse Case Against University Place School District
$1.4M Settlement Reached in Washington Department of Social and Health Services Foster Services Sex Abuse Lawsuit