If you or a loved one has been sexually assaulted, you are not alone. You can call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673 or chat with someone online for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Navigating through the aftermath of a sexual assault can be an overwhelming and emotionally painful experience, especially when it occurs in a place designed for growth and learning, like a college campus. If you or someone close to you has experienced a traumatic incident of this kind, first and foremost, we want you to know that it is not your fault. You are not alone, and resources and support systems are available to help you through this difficult time.
Our goal with this blog post is to provide some clarity on a complex and challenging issue - understanding who is held liable after a sexual assault on a college campus. Pursuing justice in these cases often involves untangling a complicated web of legal and institutional responsibilities, which can be daunting.
Your healing should be your priority, and understanding more about these situations can be an empowering step toward recovery.
Understanding Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is a term that encompasses a range of non-consensual sexual activities. It's a violation of trust and boundaries and a person’s rights to personal safety and bodily autonomy.
By definition, sexual assault is any form of sexual activity or contact that occurs without the explicit consent of all parties involved. It can take many forms, from unwanted touching or groping to rape. It's important to note that sexual assault isn't limited to physical contact. It can also include sexual harassment, stalking, exhibitionism, or forcing someone to view explicit material without their consent.
For example, if a person is coerced into a sexual act because they're too afraid to say no, that's sexual assault. If someone is incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs and cannot consent, any sexual activity with them is considered sexual assault. Even within a romantic relationship, if one party forces the other into a sexual act against their will, that's sexual assault.
Understanding consent is crucial when discussing sexual assault. Consent is a clear, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity. It must be informed, freely given, and can be withdrawn at any time. Without consent, any sexual act, regardless of its nature, is a sexual assault.
The key aspect of consent is communication. Both parties should always discuss their comfort levels, boundaries, and desires. Silence or lack of resistance does not equate to consent, and past consent does not imply future consent. For instance, just because someone consented to an act previously doesn't mean they have given perpetual consent for that act.
The Role of the Perpetrator
When discussing liability in sexual assault cases, the primary focus often lies on the perpetrator - the individual who directly commits the act of sexual assault. They hold the most significant responsibility and are typically the first party to be considered in legal proceedings.
The perpetrator's direct liability stems from the fact that they have willingly and knowingly violated another person's right to consent, safety, and autonomy. This violation is a breach of moral and ethical conduct and a grave legal offense.
The consequences for the perpetrator can vary greatly depending on the nature and severity of the assault, the evidence presented, and the jurisdiction in which the case is tried. However, it's important to note that sexual assault is a crime, and the penalties can be severe.
Legal consequences for perpetrators can include:
- Criminal charges: Sexual assault is a criminal offense. If found guilty, the perpetrator could face imprisonment, with the length of the sentence depending on the specifics of the crime.
- Civil lawsuits: Beyond criminal charges, survivors of sexual assault may also file civil lawsuits against their assailants. These cases seek monetary compensation for physical and emotional suffering, medical expenses, therapy costs, and other damages related to the assault.
- Sex offender registration: In many jurisdictions, those convicted of sexual assault must register as sex offenders, significantly impacting their social standing and limiting their future opportunities.
- Disciplinary actions from college/university: If the assault occurs on a college campus, the perpetrator may also face disciplinary actions from the institution, ranging from mandatory counseling and suspension to expulsion.
It's worth noting that pursuing these consequences often depends on the survivor's willingness and ability to report the assault and endure the subsequent legal proceedings. Many barriers can discourage survivors from reporting, including fear of retaliation, stigma, and the emotional toll of reliving the experience in court.
However, holding perpetrators accountable is a crucial step in addressing the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. It sends a strong message that such behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated, potentially deterring future offenses.
Are Colleges and Universities Liable?
Colleges and universities can also bear a significant amount of responsibility in cases of sexual assault on campus. This responsibility stems from federal laws like Title IX and the Clery Act, which mandate specific actions and protections related to sexual harassment and violence.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. It has been interpreted to include sexual harassment and assault within its scope. According to Title IX, colleges and universities are required to address and remedy hostile educational environments resulting from sexual assault. They must have established procedures for handling complaints of sexual discrimination, harassment, or violence.
The Clery Act, on the other hand, requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. This includes maintaining a public crime log, issuing timely warnings about crimes that pose a threat to students or employees, and publishing an annual security report. The Clery Act also requires institutions to provide certain rights to sexual assault survivors and ensure transparent proceedings.
If a college or university fails to comply with these laws, they can be held liable for the sexual assault. For instance, if a school ignores a student's report of sexual assault, resulting in a hostile educational environment, it could potentially be found in violation of Title IX. Similarly, if a school fails to accurately report sexual assault cases as required by the Clery Act, it can face hefty fines and damage to its reputation.
There have been several high-profile instances where colleges and universities were held liable for mishandling sexual assault cases. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Education found Virginia Tech in violation of the Clery Act after it failed to promptly warn students about a shooter on campus. More recently, in 2019, Michigan State University was fined a record $4.5 million for its mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against former sports doctor Larry Nassar.
These cases underscore the importance of colleges and universities taking their responsibilities seriously when it comes to preventing and addressing sexual assault on campus. Not only can failure to do so lead to legal liability, but it also undermines the trust and safety of students.
Other Potential Parties
In the context of sexual assault on college campuses, it's not only individuals or the institution itself that can be held liable. Fraternities, sororities, and other organizations can also bear responsibility under certain circumstances.
Fraternities and sororities are often significant components of a college's social scene. These organizations host numerous social events throughout the year, some of which unfortunately become settings where sexual assaults occur. Leaders within these organizations are required to sign documentation stating that they understand their responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is ensuring all members' and guests' safety and well-being at their events.
One legal principle that can hold these organizations accountable is 'social host liability.' This concept places responsibility on these organizations for the damages resulting from alcohol they provided. If a fraternity or sorority serves alcohol at an event and a guest becomes intoxicated and commits sexual assault, the organization could potentially be held liable.
Moreover, universities can be liable for injuries related to Greek activities and functions. For instance, if a university is aware of a history of sexual assault in a specific fraternity but fails to take appropriate action, the institution could potentially be found negligent.
There are also internal accountability processes within these organizations. All sororities and fraternities are expected to have an internal standards board that holds members accountable for their organization's purpose and policies. Any violation, including incidents of sexual assault, can lead to sanctions against the individual or the entire organization.
The accountability of fraternities, sororities, and other student organizations is essential to creating safe environments on college campuses. By understanding their potential liability, these groups can be more proactive in preventing sexual assault and responding appropriately when such incidents occur.
How Do Civil Sexual Assault Cases Work?
When comparing how a sexual assault case is handled in civil court versus criminal court, the critical difference lies in who initiates the proceedings and the outcomes sought from each process.
In a criminal case, the state brings charges against the accused, treating the sexual assault as a crime against society. The prosecution represents the state, aiming to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. If found guilty, the perpetrator faces penalties such as imprisonment, fines, probation, or required registration as a sex offender.
On the other hand, a civil lawsuit for sexual assault is initiated by the survivor, not the state. The aim is not to prove criminal guilt but to establish that it's more likely than not (a lower standard of proof than "beyond a reasonable doubt") that the defendant caused harm to the plaintiff. If successful, the defendant may be ordered to pay damages to compensate the survivor for physical, psychological, and emotional harm suffered.
While a criminal conviction can provide a sense of justice and deterrence, a civil lawsuit is often the only way a survivor can receive monetary compensation for their ordeal. It's important to note that these two processes can occur concurrently and independently, meaning a decision in one does not necessarily impact the other.
However, navigating civil and criminal proceedings can be complex and emotionally challenging for survivors. Therefore, it's crucial to seek professional advice when considering legal action.
What Kind of Damages Can You Seek?
In a civil lawsuit for sexual assault, the survivor seeks damages, which are a form of monetary compensation. These damages aim to restore the survivor to the financial state they would have been in if the assault had not occurred, as much as money can do so.
There are several types of damages that might be available in a sexual assault case:
- Medical expenses: This includes costs for immediate medical care following the assault, ongoing physical treatments, counseling, and therapy.
- Lost wages: If the survivor had to miss work due to the assault, they could be compensated for lost income. In some cases, if the assault impacts their ability to work in the future, they may also be entitled to compensation for lost earning capacity.
- Pain and suffering: This refers to the physical pain and emotional distress the survivor has endured due to the assault. Given the traumatic nature of sexual assault, these damages can often be substantial.
- Punitive damages: These damages are intended to punish the perpetrator and deter others from committing similar acts. They are awarded in addition to compensatory damages when the perpetrator's behavior is deemed particularly egregious.
It's important to note that the specific damages available and the amount that can be awarded vary greatly depending on the circumstances of the case and the jurisdiction in which the lawsuit is filed. Therefore, it's crucial for survivors considering a civil lawsuit to seek advice from an experienced sexual assault attorney.
How Mitchell & West LLC Can Help
At Mitchell & West LLC, we understand the difficulty of navigating a sexual assault case. We are committed to providing survivors with compassionate and experienced legal counsel so that they can pursue justice and receive the compensation they deserve. Our team is dedicated to helping you through every step of the process, from filing your claim to collecting damages from those responsible for your harm.
We believe in holding perpetrators accountable for their actions and advocating on behalf of survivors’ rights. Our attorneys have extensive experience representing clients in civil proceedings related to sexual assault cases. We will work with you to ensure that all potential parties are held responsible for their actions or negligence in creating an unsafe environment.
Our lawyers also understand that seeking legal action can be emotionally challenging for survivors, so our staff provides comprehensive support throughout the entire process – from initial consultation through settlement negotiations and court proceedings if necessary. We take pride in treating each client with respect and dignity while guiding them through this challenging time with sensitivity and understanding.
Contact us online or call us at (305) 783-3301 to schedule a free consultation to discuss your sexual assault case. Let us fight for you and take the necessary steps to pursue justice – and compensation – on your behalf.