Domestic Violence: Civil Liability FAQ
Information to help you take legal action against your abuser.
Possibly. When one person injures another in some way, that act is called a "tort." The person injured by the tort may sue the wrongdoer for damages. Legally, torts are known as civil (as opposed to criminal) wrongs. But some acts of domestic violence, such as battery, may be both torts and crimes; the wrongdoer may face both civil and criminal penalties. One now famous example of a civil case is Goldman v. Simpson, in which Ron Goldman's parents sued O.J. Simpson for their son's death. Because Mr. Simpson was acquitted in the criminal trial, the Goldmans sued for money damages in civil court and won.
Under traditional law, family members were prohibited from suing each other for torts. The justification was that allowing family members to sue each other would lead to a breakdown of the family. Today, however, many states recognize that if family members have committed torts against each other, the relationships are already suffering from breakdown. Thus, they no longer bar family members from suing each other. In these states, spouses may sue each other either during the marriage or after they have separated.
A few states still prohibit one family member from suing another. A court may make an exception, however, when the tort is intentional -- that is, a deliberate act which causes harm to another person. The behaviors that constitute domestic violence -- assault, battery, psychological abuse -- are almost always considered intentional torts.