Suing for Domestic Violence

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 Can I Sue My Spouse for Domestic Violence?

It is imperative that if you are facing a domestic violence emergency, contact 911 or your local police. Unfortunately, domestic violence is a relatively common occurrence; as such, emergency services are prepared to intervene. Additionally, there are local domestic violence hotlines that provide assistance, and domestic violence shelters exist to provide safety to those trying to escape from a violent situation. 

However, such shelters generally only accept assigned female at birth victims and their children. Assigned male at birth victims of domestic violence may not receive the help they need, and will need to seek out other resources.

Domestic violence is often referred to as domestic abuse. This term generally refers to violence between adults, but especially between spouses. Domestic abuse or violence can be either physical or psychological, and can also be described as behavior used by one person in a relationship to control the other person in the relationship. This behavior may happen frequently, or only occasionally; either can constitute domestic violence in legal terms.

Some specific examples of domestic violence include, but may not be limited to:

  • Emotional abuse, such as threats, degrading language, name calling, or put downs;
  • Preventing a partner from contacting their family or friends;
  • Preventing a partner from obtaining or keeping a job;
  • Threats of physical harm;
  • Actual physical harm;
  • Stalking or intimidation;
  • Harassment;
  • Economic abuse; and
  • Sexual abuse.

Most states have determined that domestic abuse includes any conduct which causes or threatens to cause injury between:

  • Family members;
  • Spouses; and/or
  • Residents of the same household. 

Child abuse is sometimes excluded from the legal definition of domestic abuse, due to the fact that this is considered to be its own category of abuse. In addition to child abuse, elder abuse is also sometimes excluded form the legal definition of domestic abuse, as such abuse typically is charged as a seperate offense. 

In terms of whether it is possible to sue for domestic abuse, that depends on the state in which the couple lives. In the past, suing a spouse was prohibited under the doctrine of spousal privilege. However, most states now allow you to sue your spouse, either while still married or afterwards. There are ten states which still prohibit immediate family members from suing each other:

  • Arizona;
  • Delaware;
  • Hawaii;
  • Illinois;
  • Iowa;
  • Louisiana;
  • Missouri;
  • Ohio;
  • Texas;
  • Utah;
  • Wyoming; and
  • Washington D.C.

However, even these states generally allow exceptions for “intentional torts,” which would be specific and purposeful acts of wrongdoing. Because the typical behaviors which generally constitute domestic violence are almost certainly categorized as “intentional,” you can likely sue for domestic abuse in these states as well.

What Kind of Behavior Can Be Considered Domestic Violence?

In legal terms, the definition of what constitutes domestic violence can be difficult to narrow down; this is partially due to the fact that each state may define the term differently. Some specific examples of what kind of behavior can be considered domestic violence include:

  • Slapping, punching, or shoving;
  • Nonconsensual hair pulling;
  • Forced or coerced sexual acts;
  • Unwanted fondling or intercourse;
  • Jokes and insults associated with sexuality;
  • Threats of abuse, such as threatening to hit, harm, or use a weapon on another;
  • Threats to tell others confidential information, and
  • Psychological abuse, such as attacks on self-esteem, controlling or limiting another’s behavior, and repeated insults and interrogation.

Any of these behaviors coming from someone with whom you have a close relationship would most likely be considered domestic violence. This is in addition to the aforementioned examples when defining domestic abuse and domestic violence. Additionally, every state automatically considers such acts to be domestic abuse or violence if you are married. Whether other classes of relationships qualify under these deinitions, such as dating couples or same-sex couples, differs on a state by state basis.

Why Should I Sue My Abuser?

First and foremost, it is essential to discuss how domestic violence affects the victim. A single occurrence of domestic abuse often has dramatic effects on the lives of all involved. Domestic abuse often results in severe emotional trauma for the victim, as well as witnesses to the incident. A judge may recommend that the victim and/or witnesses attend counseling, or rehabilitation sessions.   

One of the larger effects would be changes in child custody and visitation orders. The defendant could lose their child custody rights, and could be prohibited from visiting their child. This is for the protection of the child; however, it also means that the child will be unable to contact that parent for some time, or even permanently.

Domestic abuse often results in the victim(s) being relocated out of state, or to a shelter home. Again, this is for the protection of the victim. This is especially common if the domestic abuse involves harassment or stalking, or if the defendant has previously violated a restraining order. The defendant may be held liable for the costs associated with physically relocating the victim.

In terms of suing your abuser in tort, this can provide a sense of emotional relief and control. If you have missed work due to being abused, you may receive lost wages and medical expenses. You may also receive general damages for pain and suffering. Some states allow for punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant in order to discourage them from repeating their behavior. Such damages can be considerable sums of money which can help you start a new life. 

There are some considerations before moving forward with a lawsuit against your abuser, other than the obvious amount of stress involved. It is often difficult for victims of domestic violence to recognize their own abuse, in which case actually taking the abuser to court may be too difficult for them to consider. 

Suing your abuser may be the best way to break ties with the past and fight back, especially if the abuser would likely be incarcerated. Courts can often force your abuser to cover your litigation fees, and many attorneys work on a contingency basis for such cases. Potential compensation for domestic violence lawsuits include the aforementioned damages awards.

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

  • Does your abuser have the means to pay damages? 
  • Does your abuser have insurance? This is relevant because while homeowners insurance will not pay for intentional torts, they will pay for negligence.
  • If you are getting a divorce, be careful when signing a marriage settlement. This document will often include clauses in order to prevent lawsuits for any past abuse. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Domestic Violence Lawsuit?

If you are ready to sue your spouse for domestic violence, you should consult with an experienced and local family law attorney as soon as possible. Domestic violence is a serious offense, and the associated laws vary from state to state especially in terms of statutes of limitation. 

As such, working with a local and experienced family law lawyer is the best way to ensure you receive relevant legal advice and protections. An attorney can help you gather evidence to support your claim, file a lawsuit against your abuser, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.

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