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Suing for Domestic Violence

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Can I Sue my Spouse for Domestic Violence?

Probably.  Although for many years suing ones spouse was prohibited under spousal privilege, these days most states do allow one to sue your spouse, either while still married or afterwards.  Ten states (Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming) and Washington D.C. still do prohibit immediate family from suing one another.  But even these states generally allow exceptions for "intentional torts," or specific and purposeful acts of wrongdoing on the family member's part.  All of the typical behaviors which generally constitute domestic violence -- assault, battery, psychological abuse, etc... -- are almost certainly categorized as "intentional," so you can likely sue in these states as well. 

What Kind of Behavior can be Considered Domestic Violence?

There is no all-encapsulating definition of what constitutes domestic violence; every state defines it differently.  But any of the following behavior:

  • Slapping, punching, pulling hair or shoving
  • Forced or coerced sexual acts or behavior such as unwanted fondling or intercourse, or jokes and insults aimed at sexuality
  • Threats of abuse-threatening to hit, harm or use a weapon on another, or to tell others confidential information, and
  • Psychological abuse-attacks on self-esteem, controlling or limiting another's behavior, repeated insults and interrogation.

...coming from someone with whom you have a close relationship is very likely to be considered domestic violence.  All states automatically consider it as such if you are married, and whether other classes (such as dating couples or same-sex couples) qualify would depend on the state.

Why Should I Sue my Abuser?

Besides the obvious possible financial benefits, suing your abuser in tort can provide a sense of emotional relief and control.  If you've missed work because of your abuse, you can receive lost wages and medical expenses, as well as general damages for pain and suffering.  Some states will even allow punitive damages, which are meant to punish the defendant, and can be considerable sums of money that can help you start a new life. 

But obtaining vindication through the court system comes at a cost.  There is certainly a lot of stress involved, and already damaged family ties will be further strained.  It also difficult for many victims to just recognize their own abuse; actually taking the abuser to court may be too difficult for them to contemplate.  But sometimes when victims realize the position they've been put in and want to fight back, suing their abuser may be the best way to break ties with the past, especially if the abuser may be going to jail anyway.  And while litigation is expensive, courts can often force the abuser to pay your litigation fees, and many attorneys work on contingency.

If you're considering bringing a tort action for injuries you received from a family member, keep the following points in mind: 

  • Is it worth it?  Does your abuser have the money to pay damages? 
  • Does the abuser have insurance?  Home owner's insurance will NOT pay for intentional torts, but WILL pay for negligence (you might be able to frame your abuse as the result of negligence)
  • If you are getting a divorce, be careful of signing a marriage settlement, which will often include clauses to prevent suits for any past abuse. 

If you win your case, the amount of damages can be very substantial.  If you think you have a case for suing your spouse or family member for domestic violence, you should contact a civil litigator at once.  Statute of limitations may apply to your case, so you should talk to an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible to find out your rights and options.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-14-2018 12:35 AM PDT

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