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 who are injured in some way by another, usually in the form of money damages or injunctive relief (the court ordering someone to do or not do certain acts). Read on to learn more about filing a domestic violence lawsuit in civil court.
Criminal Proceedings Do Not Bar a Victim from Suing in Civil Court
A common misconception is that once a person has been tried for something in criminal court, he or she cannot be tried in civil court for that same claim. This isn't true. Take the Goldman v. Simpson case, for example. O.J. Simpson was acquitted in criminal court for the murder of Ron Goldman, but Goldman's parents sued Simpson for money damages in civil court and prevailed.
Just because your abuser has been tried in criminal court or you have obtained a restraining order against him or her, 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, courts would not allow family members to sue each other for torts. This law was based on concerns about breaking down the family unit. Today, many state courts have moved away from this, reasoning that if family members have torts claims against each other, the family unit is probably already broken down, and those injured parties should have their day in court.
Hence, states that allow family members to sue each other would probably not bar a family member, such as a spouse, from filing a domestic violence lawsuit against another family member for injuries. The following jurisdictions still follow the traditional rule barring family members from suing each other:
However, even though a state may bar family members from suing one another, sometimes, they will make exceptions 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.
Things to Consider Before Filing a Domestic Violence Lawsuit
Often, victims of domestic violence have been robbed of their sense of control and of their emotional outlet. Suing your abuser can give you that sense of control and can provide a sense of emotional relief. The types of damages possibly available to domestic violence victims include:
Keep in mind that a great deal of stress is involved in any lawsuit. Lawsuits involving family members can be even more stressful because of the strain placed on family ties. 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 court may be just as difficult. However, once victims realize their position, they are ready to fight back. The act of taking their abuser to court may serve as closure for victims--a way to leave the past behind them and start fresh.
Litigation can be very expensive. However, courts can force the abuser to pay your fees. In lawsuits involving money damages, many attorneys work on contingency bases, meaning that the fee you pay them depends on the money amount the court awards you. When considering whether to file a domestic violence lawsuit, think about whether your abuser has money available to pay damages.
Have Questions About Filing a Domestic Violence Lawsuit? Contact an Attorney
You're not alone! Although prosecutors and victim's advocates can help pursue justice for you through the criminal courts there are many circumstances where punishing your abuser is not enough. An attorney can help you understand whether you have a claim for monetary damages, which can be helpful in establishing a life independent of an abuser. If you have questions about filing a domestic violence lawsuit, consider reaching out to an experienced family law attorney near you.