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What is the Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Abuse in Washington?

Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Abuse in Washington - Washington Law Center

The statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse in Washington is much broader than one would expect.

Essentially, there is no definable time limitation when it comes to childhood sexual abuse cases in Washington State. The Washington legislature in RCW 4.16.340 increased the time for a victim to bring a cause of action. 

For legal action against the abuser, after the victim of childhood sexual abuse turns 18, the case must be executed “within three years of the time that the act caused the injury for which the claim is brought.” Therefore, even if a victim remembers the abuse the statute of limitations does not begin until they make the clear connection between the act of abuse and the injuries it caused.

We know abuse has serious emotional impacts on you as child but there is no way to predict how it manifests throughout the rest of your life. Substance abuse, panic attacks, anxiety and sexual dysfunction are just a few examples of injuries that can come from childhood sexual abuse. Often times, it takes a forensic evaluation from a psychologist to determine whether a victim is aware of the harm that was caused by early childhood trauma from sexual abuse. 

For legal action against an entity, such as a school, after the victim of childhood sexual abuse turns 18, the case must be executed within three years of when the victim was made aware that the act of abuse caused their injury and those injuries were caused by such entity’s negligence. In 2023, the Supreme Court of Washington issued a monumental decision for this that helped clarify the statute of limitations against negligent entities. Washington Law Center provided a breakdown of the insights and impacts on that decision and can be read here.

Delayed Symptoms of Trauma in Childhood Sexual Abuse in Washington

Washington Courts have consistently ruled in favor of victims and against those that have committed childhood sexual abuse or were in a position to stop the abuse. The Supreme Court has noted that the Legislature’s purpose in enacting RCW 4.16.340 was to provide a broad avenue of redress for victims of childhood sexual abuse. C.J.C. v. Corporation of the Catholic Bishop of Yakima, 138 Wn.2d 699, 712-13, 985 P.2d 262 (1999). “The three year statute of limitations on a claim arising from an act of childhood abuse does not begin to run at least until the victim discovers ‘that the act caused the injury for which the claim is brought.’” Miller v. Campbell, 137 Wn. App. 762, 767, 155 P.3d 154 (2007) (citing RCW 4.16.340(1)(c)). “Legislative findings supporting this statutory discovery rule state the Legislature’s intent ‘that the earlier discovery of less serious injuries should not affect the statute of limitations for injuries that are discovered later.’” Id. “The special statute of limitations, RCW 4.16.340, indicates that it is not inconsistent for a victim to be aware for many years that he has been abused, yet not have knowledge of the potential tort claim against his abuser.” Id. at 773. “Indeed, as our Legislature has found, childhood sexual abuse, by its very nature, may render the victim unable to understand or make the connection between the childhood abuse and the full extent of the resulting emotional harm until many years later.” Cloud v. Summers, 98 Wn. App. 724, 735, 991 P.2d 1169 (1999).

Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Abuse in Washington

More recently, the Court of Appeals in Washington has stated that the special statute of limitations that tolls civil claims based on intentional childhood sexual abuse is unique in that it does not begin running when a victim discovers an injury. Instead, it specifically focuses on when a victim of sexual abuse discovers a causal link between abuse and injury for which the suit is brought. The legislature specifically anticipated that victims may know they are suffering emotional harm or damage but not be able to understand the connection between those symptoms and the abuse. B.R. v. Horsley, 186 Wash.App. 294 (2015).

Recovering for Childhood Sexual Abuse Decades Later

Most victims of childhood sexual abuse are well aware that they were abused as children but have not connected all of their physical and emotional injuries to the perpetuated acts. Victims of childhood sexual abuse often do not realize how their work, family, intimacy and personal life have been impacted. Individuals who have been abused as children have known difficulties with addiction and the inability to have sustaining relationships into adulthood. The Washington legislature has recognized these harms and allow victims to recover even decades later.

What Steps Can You Take?

Do not let the fear of the statute of limitations with regard to childhood sexual abuse prevent you from contacting an attorney to discuss your case. If you were sexually abused in Washington or by a resident of Washington, you very likely have a legitimate claim that entitles you to compensation. Contact the experienced attorneys of Washington Law Center today.

We have helped people who have been impacted by sexual abuse and sexual assault at every stage of life. Our legal team feels strongly that people who have been wronged in this manner should be given all the assistance they need to have a healthy life moving forward.


Ashton Dennis

Personal Injury Attorney

Ashton Dennis is a litigation and trial attorney at Washington Law Center focused on representing individuals and families who have suffered a serious personal injury or wrongful death. He was named one of the “Top 40 Under 40” by the National Trial Lawyers of Washington State and one of the “Premier 100” trial attorneys by the American Academy of Trial Lawyers in Washington. Click here to learn more about Ashton.

Personal Injury Attorney - Ashton Dennis - Tacoma, WA - Washington Law Center
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