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What is the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Sexual Assault Cases?

When you learn that someone is accusing you of sexual assault, there are probably a number of questions running through your mind – how did this happen? What is at stake for me? Do I need an attorney?

One question that may not immediately occur to you, however, is whether you’ll be facing a civil lawsuit in addition to, or instead of criminal charges. Sometimes a complaining witness (the accuser) chooses, for reasons elaborated below, to file a civil lawsuit against an alleged assailant. “Sexual assault” per se would not be the cause of action here – instead, you may be sued for civil causes of action like:

  • Assault/Battery
  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
  • False Imprisonment

Why do some complaining witnesses file civil lawsuits?

There are a number of reasons a complaining witness might file a civil lawsuit. By filing a civil lawsuit, an accuser can potentially:

  • Be awarded money damages by the court
  • Reach a lucrative settlement deal with the accused
  • Take advantage of the lower standard of proof in civil matters (rather than the high bar of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” to establish guilt in criminal trials)
  • Accusers who do not get their desired guilty verdict at criminal trial may feel the need to get “justice” in another proceeding

What are the key differences between criminal and civil cases?


  • The charge may be rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, etc.
  • Government brings the charges
  • Standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt” (high standard)
  • A judge or jury finds the defendant either guilty or not guilty of the crime charged
  • Penalties could include jail time, community custody, sex offender registry, etc.
  • Long-term results could result in a criminal conviction/criminal record


  • Cause of action is an intentional tort, such as assault/battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or false imprisonment
  • The plaintiff (accuser) brings the lawsuit
  • Standard of proof is a preponderance of the evidence (much lower standard)
  • If the case goes to trial before settling, a judge or jury will find the defendant either liable or not liable for the plaintiff’s injury
  • Penalties could include money damages, settlement costs, attorneys’ fees
  • Could result in settlement payments or payment for damages, but no criminal record

Can the same attorney represent me for both a criminal trial and a civil lawsuit?

The answer to this question will depend on the attorney you’ve selected to represent you. Commonly, attorneys will specialize in either criminal or civil practice. For this reason, finding an attorney to lead your case both on the civil and the criminal side may be challenging. Often, personal injury defense attorneys will handle civil sexual assault defense.

If the idea of having to trust a host of attorneys with your cases concerns you, don’t worry. While the Marshall Defense Firm specializes in criminal trials, we regularly collaborate with trusted civil attorneys who can help our clients fight sexual assault accusations in civil matters.

We handle some select civil matters, such as college and university disciplinary proceedings and civil compensation claims for childhood sexual abuse. If your civil case falls into either of these categories, or you would like experienced representation in a criminal matter by an attorney who can also connect you with an excellent civil attorney, please contact us at 206.826.1400 or

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