Filing a Domestic Violence Lawsuit

Most acts of domestic violence result not only in criminal liability but also civil liability for the perpetrator. This means that if you're a victim of domestic violence, it's possible to sue your abuser in civil court for your injuries under tort law.

Tort law provides civil legal remedies for people injured in some way by another person. Tort remedies usually include financial damages or injunctive relief. Financial damages are awarded to make you whole. Injunctive relief occurs when the court orders someone to do or not do certain acts.

Today, victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or psychological abuse can usually file a civil lawsuit against their abusers. Read on to learn more about filing a domestic violence civil lawsuit in court.

Criminal Proceedings Do Not Bar a Victim from Suing in Civil Court

A common misconception is that once a person has faced criminal charges in criminal court, they cannot face a civil claim over the same conduct. This isn't true. Criminal and civil proceedings are distinct. The Goldman v. Simpson case provides a good example. O.J. Simpson was acquitted in criminal court for the murder of Ron Goldman and Simpson's former spouse, Nicole Brown-Simpson. In civil court, Goldman and Brown-Simpson's families obtained a wrongful death finding and money damages award against Simpson.

Just because your abuser has been tried in a criminal case or you have obtained a restraining order against them does not mean you cannot sue your abuser in civil court. The concept of double jeopardy does not apply to civil cases but only when there are multiple criminal prosecutions for the same crime.

Suing a Family Member

Traditionally, states would not allow family members to sue each other for torts. Many states had adopted the common law doctrine of spousal immunity. This doctrine held that spouses could not sue each other for personal injury in civil court. In an 1891 case, the Mississippi Supreme Court first acknowledged a doctrine of parental immunity. The case involved a child suing a parent for placing them in an insane asylum.

These doctrines were based on concerns about breaking down the family unit. Today, most state laws have moved away from this reasoning. Today, if family members have torts claims against each other, the family unit is probably already broken down. Injured parties should have their day in court. But there may be practical reasons to avoid filing a lawsuit against family members.

As it stands, Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. that still bars spouses from suing each other, except in certain circumstances. But spouses can generally sue each other for intentional torts. An intentional tort refers to a deliberate action that causes harm to another person. Since many forms of domestic violence constitute intentional torts, such as battery, assault, and psychological abuse, these acts could constitute claims for a lawsuit even in a jurisdiction that would normally bar suits between family members. Another tort claim, the intentional infliction of emotional distress, may also be available if the abuser was stalking, threatening, or destroying property. Many states, including Mississippi, abolished parental immunity in automobile accident cases. This permits a minor to sue a parent and the parent's insurance company for negligence.

Things to Consider Before Filing a Domestic Violence Lawsuit

Often, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault have lost their sense of control. Threats of harm and actual harm usually coincide with emotional abuse. Suing your abuser can give you a sense of control and emotional relief. The types of damages available for domestic abuse or sexual abuse include:

  • Lost wages
  • Payment of medical bills
  • Pain and suffering
  • Punitive damages (only available in some states)

Remember that any lawsuit causes stress. Lawsuits involving family members can be even more stressful because of the strain placed on other household members. It is often hard enough for victims to even make a police report or file for a restraining order against their abusers. Taking the abuser to civil court may be just as difficult. Filing a civil lawsuit for personal injury may act as a form of closure for some victims of domestic abuse. It can be another way to hold an offender accountable for their actions.

Litigation can be very expensive. You may be able to request that the court order the abuser to pay your attorney fees and costs. Although unusual in these types of cases, attorneys sometimes work on a contingency basis in lawsuits involving money damages. If an attorney agrees to represent you under this fee arrangement, you won't pay unless you win the case. To put it bluntly, when considering whether to file a domestic violence lawsuit, it matters whether your abuser has money or assets available to pay damages.

Finally, each state has a statute of limitations for civil personal injury lawsuits. An attorney can tell you what the law provides in your state. You do not want to miss the deadline for filing a civil lawsuit.

Divorce and Other Litigation May Also Provide Relief

If the domestic violence victim is married to the abuser, they may consider filing a divorce action. Divorce actions are normally filed in family court. Through divorce, the family court can resolve matters of child custody and child support. The family court can also decide who gets the marital home and address spousal support. The family court has the authority to divide the couple's assets and debts. For this reason, the court will issue a restraining order to prevent a party from removing or liquidating assets during the divorce. A divorce restraining order may prevent a spouse from creating debt in both parties' names.

In intimate partner domestic violence cases, a victim may also seek a domestic violence restraining order. The court can provide immediate relief with a temporary restraining order. After notice has been provided to both parties for a court hearing, the court may issue an order of protection that may last for years. If an abuser violates an order of protection, law enforcement officers can make an arrest. Violation of a protection order itself is a criminal offense.

If the domestic violence victim and the abuser have minor children together but are not married, a paternity action may be appropriate. The family court can establish orders of child custody and child support once paternity is established.

Have Questions About Filing a Domestic Violence Lawsuit?

You're not alone. Prosecutors and victim advocates can help you pursue justice through the criminal courts. You may want to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for more information.

There may be relief that will only be available through a civil lawsuit. You may need to seek legal advice to evaluate your situation best. An attorney can help you understand whether you have a claim for monetary damages or other relief. If you have questions about filing a domestic violence lawsuit, consider contacting an experienced family law attorney near you.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Victims of domestic violence can press charges against their abuser
  • The ability or requirements to press charges varies in each state
  • Contacting a family law attorney or advocacy groups for advice is essential

Some attorneys represent victims of domestic violence. Others defend the rights of those accused of domestic abuse or other related crimes. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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