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Pennsylvania Law – What’s the Statute of Limitations in Sex Assault Cases (Adult Victims)?

Statute of limitations laws in Pennsylvania put a time limit on a person’s right to seek legal remedies through the courts. If you don’t file your lawsuit within the applicable time period, which varies depending on the type of case, you lose your right to file altogether.

Under Pennsylvania law, civil lawsuits for sex assault where the victim was 18+ are treated just like other injury cases, such as auto injury cases or defective product cases. Cases where the victim was under the age of 18 at the time of the incident are treated differently when it comes to the statute of limitations. In these cases, victims have much longer to file lawsuits. Click the link for a discussion of Pennsylvania’s civil statute of limitations laws in child molestation cases.

statute of limitations civil lawsuits for sex assaultIn Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations law for sex assault or abuse (adult victims) is 2 years from the date of the incident. For example, an individual is sexually assaulted in a common area of their apartment complex. The perpetrator gained entry to the building due to a broken door lock that the landlord failed to repair. The victim would have a viable lawsuit against landlord and the perp, which must be filed within 2 years of the date of the incident.

The 2 year time limit is a strict deadline. Lack of knowledge, mistake or misunderstanding of the law will not stop the clock. However, there are some exceptions to the 2 year time deadline. The discovery rule is one such exception. Fraud or incapacity are other exceptions which apply in limited situations.

The Discovery Rule & Statute of Limitations in a PA Sex Assault Lawsuit

Under Pennsylvania law, the 2 year period may begin running after a plaintiff discovers the injury, rather than when the injury actually happened. In order to take advantage of the discovery rule, the plaintiff must not have known of the injury and could not have known of the injury despite exercising due diligence.

This exception often comes into play in medical malpractice cases where a patient did not have any reason to know that a doctor or surgeon made a mistake. For instance, a patient undergoes surgery and a sponge is left behind. The patient doesn’t discover the mistake until they develop a serious infection 6 months later and learn that the infection is due to the sponge. In this instance, the 2 year statute of limitations would start ticking on the date of discovery, 6 months after the actual surgery (the date of the injury).

Let’s examine how the discovery rule would come into play in a sex assault lawsuit. Using the same example above, let’s change the fact pattern. The tenant is sexually assaulted in her apartment complex by a complete stranger. The fact that the perpetrator got inside the building because of a broken lock is not discovered until several months later, when an employee of the landlord makes a comment to the victim about the broken lock and criminal activity. Prior to this, the victim had no reason to know of the broken lock or any criminal activity. She spoke to other employees about the assault and how the perp gained entry, but was told various things, none of which included details of the broken lock. In addition, the landlord never notified tenants of an increase in criminal activity, despite having received complaints prior to the assault.

In this instance, the victim may be able to assert that she did not discover the cause of the injury (landlord’s failure to secure the building) until several months after the assault. Hence, with respect to a lawsuit against the landlord, the 2 year time period would not start ticking until she became aware of this fact, rather than 2 years from the date of the assault. She would have to show that the failure to discover this critical fact was not unreasonable, i.e., she exercised due diligence to discover what happened and how the perpetrator got into the building.

Fraud or Incapacity Exceptions to Pennsylvania’s Statute of Limitations

Pennsylvania recognizes two exceptions to the general statute of limitations law in personal injury cases: fraud or incapacity. A plaintiff’s incapacity may pause the statute of limitations period for the duration of the incapacity. Pennsylvania courts will not allow mental incapacity (i.e., dementia or psychological disorders) to stop the clock. Physical incapacity may, however, stop the clock. Cases where a plaintiff was in a coma or suffered from complete memory loss (amnesia) may toll the clock. For example, in a violent sex assault case, the victim suffers a severe head injury that results in a coma for several months. The statute of limitations would likely be paused during the period of time the victim was in the coma.

Fraud is a much more difficult exception to prove. It generally requires sufficient evidence that the defendant intentionally misled the plaintiff about some fact relevant to a legal claim. For example, the victim in a sex assault case may be able to take advantage of the fraud exception to the 2 year time limit where the defendant lied about the whereabouts of the perpetrator-employee and told the plaintiff that the perpetrator (who was an employee) had died, when in fact, the perp had moved out of the state.

Statute of limitations issues in sex assault and abuse cases require careful analysis by an experienced crime victim injury lawyer. For a free consultation, please call our office. (866) 641-0806

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