Pennsylvania Child Molestation-Abuse Lawsuits: What is the Statute of Limitations?


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Is Your Lawsuit Time-Barred?

One of the most common questions victims of child molestation and abuse want to know is whether they still have time to file civil lawsuits in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the answer is very complex for two reasons.

First, Pennsylvania statute of limitations law for child sex abuse lawsuits was changed significantly in 2002. Second, the law imposes an arbitrary cut off; victims have until their 30th birthday to file civil lawsuits for molestation and sex abuse.

It is important to note that statute of limitations issues are very complex and depend on the facts of each case. Therefore, if you have a potential child sex abuse lawsuit you’d like to discuss, you must speak to a sex abuse lawyer immediately. Delay may bar your case.

Related: Want to File a Sex Abuse-Assault Lawsuit in Pennsylvania? What You Need to Know

Pennsylvania’s Child Sex Abuse Statute of Limitations Law for Civil Lawsuits

Pennsylvania’s child sex abuse statute of limitations law can be found at 42 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Section 5533. The full text of the statute is provided below.

Under Section 5533(b)(2), an individual is entitled to bring a civil lawsuit to seek justice for any childhood sexual abuse so long as two conditions are met: 1. the abuse occurred when the individual was a minor, and 2. the lawsuit is filed within 12 years after the individual turns 18 years of age (i.e., the victim’s 30th birthday). In addition, the law makes it clear that a criminal case is unnecessary. In other words, a victim of child sex abuse can seek justice in the civil courts even if a criminal case is never filed, or a criminal case is unsuccessful.

Section 5533 was amended in June 2002; the amendment became effective 60 days later. Prior to June 2002, the statute of limitations under this law was 5 years after the victim’s 18th birthday (i.e., the victim’s 23rd birthday). This is what creates the confusion when analyzing a statute of limitations issue in child molestation or abuse cases where the abusive conduct occurred before the law became effective, on August 27, 2002. The table below provides a general outline of how the statute of limitations law (SOL) comes into play, depending on the timeline of abuse.

Current Age
(as of 12/3/2014)
You Were Under 18 Years Old and Sexually Abused BEFORE Aug. 27, 2002 You Were Under 18 Years Old and Sexually Abused AFTER Aug. 27, 2002
Under 18 The SOL for pre-2002 abuse acts is your 23rd birthday.* The SOL is your 30th birthday.*
18-29 The SOL for pre-2002 abuse acts is/was your 23rd birthday.* The SOL is your 30th birthday.*
30+ The SOL for pre-2002 abuse acts was your 23rd birthday.* The SOL was your 30th birthday.*

*It is crucial to note that statute of limitations issues are very complex, and the law is always changing. States often pass laws opening special windows of time for child sex abuse victims, whose cases were previously time-barred, to file civil lawsuits. Therefore, it is important to speak to a qualified victims’ lawyer prior to making any decisions about your case.

Examples of the PA Statute of Limitations in Child Sex Abuse Cases (Victim is 29 Years Old)

Because of the effective date of the 2002 amendment to the statute of limitations law, victims of child sex abuse who are currently 29 years old could still seek justice and file a civil lawsuit. However, that window of time is quickly closing. Here is an example. You are currently 29 years old and were sexually assaulted by a priest when you were 17 years old. This occurred in 2002, on December 31st. Under the statute of limitations law discussed above, you have until December 31, 2014 to file your civil lawsuit against the priest and any other party which negligently failed to stop or prevent the abuse from occurring.

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DISCLAIMER: This website does not create any attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice. It is crucial to speak to a qualified lawyer prior to making any decision about your case. Read full disclaimer at the bottom of this page.

Section 5533 in its Entirety (Current as of 12/3/14)

(a)  General rule.–Except as otherwise provided by statute, insanity or imprisonment does not extend the time limited by this subchapter for the commencement of a matter.

(b)  Infancy.–

(1)  (i)  If an individual entitled to bring a civil action is an unemancipated minor at the time the cause of action accrues, the period of minority shall not be deemed a portion of the time period within which the action must be commenced. Such person shall have the same time for commencing an action after attaining majority as is allowed to others by the provisions of this subchapter.

(ii)  As used in this paragraph, the term “minor” shall mean any individual who has not yet attained 18 years of age.

(2)  (i)  If an individual entitled to bring a civil action arising from childhood sexual abuse is under 18 years of age at the time the cause of action accrues, the individual shall have a period of 12 years after attaining 18 years of age in which to commence an action for damages regardless of whether the individual files a criminal complaint regarding the childhood sexual abuse.

(ii)  For the purposes of this paragraph, the term “childhood sexual abuse” shall include, but not be limited to, the following sexual activities between a minor and an adult, provided that the individual bringing the civil action engaged in such activities as a result of forcible compulsion or by threat of forcible compulsion which would prevent resistance by a person of reasonable resolution:

(A)  [defining sexual intercourse]

(B)  [defining deviate sexual intercourse]

(C)  [defining indecent contact/touching]

(iii)  For purposes of this paragraph, “forcible compulsion” shall have the meaning given to it in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3101 (relating to definitions).

(Apr. 28, 1978, P.L.202, No.53, eff. 60 days; May 30, 1984, P.L.337, No.67, eff. 30 days; June 28, 2002, P.L.518, No.86, eff. 60 days)