Posted in Sexual Abuse on May 9, 2022
Many sexual abuse victims in Montana do not realize that there are two parallel tracks for pursuing justice. The first is the criminal prosecution. In a criminal prosecution, the perpetrator of a sex crime is investigated and potentially prosecuted. The outcome of the criminal prosecution is generally related to holding the defendant responsible, which can include jail time, being registered as a sexual offender, and criminal restitution. In the criminal prosecution, the victim is not the client, the State of Montana is. Thus, while victims are made aware of the proceedings and even informed by the prosecutor about plea offers and important case deadlines, the victim has no say in what the outcome of the proceeding will be. In other words, the prosecutor does not “answer to” the victim. Also, in a criminal proceeding, while restitution is available, it is often very limited.
The Missoula sexual abuse lawyers at Heenan & Cook, PLLC specialize in prosecuting civil cases, and represent sexual and physical abuse victims across Montana in parallel civil proceedings. Unlike on the criminal side, where the outcome is generally related to holding the defendant responsible, on the civil side the outcome is monetary compensation to the victim.
Because there is no reason to put an abuse victim through the hassle of a civil lawsuit if there is not a realistic chance of financial compensation, sexual abuse lawyers at Heenan & Cook, PLLC screen cases as to whether there is insurance or other assets available to compensate the victim. Surprisingly, there is often insurance available for abuse victims. For instance, if an assault occurs in a motor vehicle, the Montana sexual abuse lawyers at Heenan & Cook, PLLC have been successful in triggering auto insurance to compensate the victim.
Likewise, if the assault occurred in a home or a place of employment or by an employee or agent of a school, church, or other institution, there may be insurance available to compensate the victim. Indeed, we have successfully recovered substantial amounts for victims against insurers of schools, churches, and other large institutions. This money has been invaluable in helping victims secure necessary counseling and care.
The staff at Heenan & Cook, PLLC are all trauma-informed trained, meaning when victims have the courage to contact us, they will be met by trained specialists. The Montana sexual abuse lawyers at Heenan & Cook, PLLC offer free consultations, handle cases on a contingency fee basis meaning the client doesn’t pay us anything unless we win, and are passionate about representing and advocating for our clients.
WHAT IS THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR SEX ABUSE CLAIMS IN MONTANA?
The general statute of limitations for tort actions such as sexual abuse is two years. Claims for negligence such as negligent supervision or entrustment are three years.
Montana has a special statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse extending it to the later of (1) age 27 years or (2) 3 years “after the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the injury was caused by the act of childhood sexual abuse.” The “discovery” rule basically says that the claim must be filed within 3 years of the victim realizing that problems they’ve had in their life (relationship issues, trust issues, etc.) are related to their abuse as a child.
In 2019, in reaction to the Miles City abuse case handled by Heenan & Cook, the Montana legislature also enacted an extension to the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse where the abuser has admitted to the abuse in writing or via recording.
WHO CAN BRING A SEX ABUSE CLAIM IN MONTANA?
The victim of the abuse is the one who has “standing” to bring a civil lawsuit in Montana. When the victim of abuse is a child, that means the child is the one who has the claim to be prosecuted. In practice, when there is a child victim, an adult is designated as the “Personal Representative” to handle the prosecution of the case. But, any money recovered on behalf of the child goes to the child. In practice, this means that a special trust or conservatorship is set up to maintain the settlement money, and a custodian is appointed by the Court to make sure the money is being used for the best interests of the child for things such as future counseling and care.
The conservatorship can last until the child is well into adulthood, and the money in the conservatorship trust can grow through prudent investing to make sure there is enough money to support and pay for a lifetime of counseling. Parents and guardians of children who have been sexually abused are often grateful to know that they are not the ones who will recover money from a lawsuit.
WHO CAN BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR SEX ABUSE CLAIMS?
In Montana, a claim can be pursued against the perpetrator of sexual abuse. Most of the sexual abuse claims we handle are against institutions and businesses that allowed sexual abuse to occur or failed to properly report it.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF FILING A CIVIL SEX ABUSE CASE?
There are many advantages to bringing a civil sex abuse case, but the most important is that you are in control. At the beginning of every sex abuse case, we work with the victim to understand what their desired outcome is and what a “win” would be to them. This can differ dramatically depending on the client and their circumstances. We then work with our client to chart out a path that gives them the best possibility of the desired outcome. For instance, some clients want the case resolved early and without a public trial. Others feel different and want “the light shined” on their abuser and those complicit. Each client and circumstance is different, and we work to craft a specific plan with our clients on every case. For most sex abuse clients, monetary recovery is not the highest priority. But, money certainly helps with future counseling and other bills. And, beyond that, money is the way that wrongdoers acknowledge guilt and fault in our system.
CAN I REMAIN ANONYMOUS IN A SEXUAL ABUSE CASE?
Many clients know they’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, and are more than happy to pursue a civil lawsuit in their own name. Others, however, are rightly reluctant. In Montana, there is a process we can and do go through with sex abuse victims who wish to remain anonymous in the civil litigation process by listing the victim by initials or “Jane Doe” or “John Doe.” This is a great comfort to many of our clients.
WHAT DAMAGES CAN BE RECOVERED IN A SEX ABUSE CASE IN MONTANA?
Each case is individual and therefore it is very difficult to quote someone in the abstract as to what their sex abuse claim is worth. A few years ago, a Montana jury awarded $35 million to a sex abuse victim. While the verdict was ultimately overturned on legal grounds, the verdict demonstrates the risk to abusers and institutions who enable abuse in sex abuse cases. Heenan & Cook was lead counsel in a case involving the Miles City School District, which resulted in a $9 million settlement. The firm has been involved in several other sex abuse cases in Montana resulting in settlements in the six and seven figures.
The value of the claim is dependent upon a number of factors including the specific facts, the level of emotional distress and other damages, and the amount of insurance or resources available to pay the claim.
IS THE INTAKE PROCESS AT HEENAN & COOK CONFIDENTIAL?
The intake specialists at Heenan & Cook have all been trained in Trauma-Informed care and are sensitive to not retraumatize sex abuse victims through the intake process. We further make it easy for potential clients to reach out to us on their terms- via phone, email or text- whichever is most comfortable. If you contact Heenan & Cook about a potential sex abuse case, you can trust that your potential case will be considered and questions answered in a safe space.