Yes, there are time limitations on when you can both prosecute and sue for sexual abuse in Washington State, and they are quite complicated. It is very important to keep the statute of limitations in mind when thinking about whether or not to pursue a case.
It is also important to remember that, with respect to criminal statutes of limitation (SOL), the time begins at the time of the crime itself. Additionally, the SOL that will apply is also the one that was in place at the time the crime occurred. Therefore, while the SOL may have been lengthened, if the limitation ran out, it cannot be restarted or lengthened. Whether this is the case with civil litigation is still being debated.
For many years, Washington state required the those sought to hold an alleged abuser accountable had to file their claim within three years of their 18th birthday. Washington is one of the many states that has incorporated a "delayed discovery" rule into it’s SOL. Delayed discovery is designed to take into account the nature of sexual abuse and how memories of the event may have been blocked, repressed, or otherwise forgotten. It therefore permitted prosecution of an abuser within three years of the date that the memories are discovered, usually through some kind of therapy.
Washington’s laws went even farther for victims rights. Although the situation is very common, people that haven’t repressed memories may have lived in ignorance of the damage the abuse has had on other aspects of their lives, including things like:
- Intimacy issues
- Problems with child rearing
- Arrested development
In Washington, the law carved another exception to allow the SOL to also run from three years of the discovery of the "causal relationship between injury and abuse," meaning that where memories aren’t discovered, but a causal relationship between suffered abuse and showing signs of injury will be sufficient to toll the SOL. These rules also applied to negligent third parties, such as church or school officials.
Clearly, that system was highly confusing. In 2013, the legislature decided to tackle this issue. Under the new SOL laws, the victim has until they turn 30 to bring their lawsuit.
The criminal statute of limitations in Washington’s is somewhat more complex. For very young children, the rule is rather straightforward: any abuse of a child younger than 14 years of age can brought to trial within either 3 years after the 18th birthday of the victim or 10 years after the crime itself, whichever one is later.
But If the victim is over 14 years of age, then it must be reported to the police within 1 year of the abuse, after which there is a 10 year window for the prosecuter to prosecute. If the the abuse is not reported within a year, then the victim has only three years from the date of the abuse to press charges.
These rules are obviously quite complicated, and if you have suffered sexual abuse, you should certainly talk to a lawyer specializing in personal injury cases or criminal law to learn if you still have time to hold an offender accountable. Sexual abuse is one of the crimes that benefits the most from statutes of limitations, as often victims are ashamed or frightened, and may sit on their rights until it is too late. If you are the victim of sexual abuse, a criminal lawyer can help you by filing suit against your abuser, the people who enabled your abuser, or by discussing with you the complicated issue of statutes of limitations, and whether or not you can speak to a prosecutor about holding the individual or individuals criminally accountable. Time is of the essence, so talk to a lawyer as soon as possible.