Suing an Abuser in Civil Court
Topics on this page:
- Interspousal Tort Immunity
- Has the abuser assaulted or battered thier intimate partner or spouse?
- Has the abuser intentionally, recklessly, or negligently caused the intimate partner or the parties’ children to suffer from emotional distress?
- Has the batterer confined or falsely imprisoned the intimate partner?
- Do the battered person’s survivors have a cause of action against the batterer for wrongful death?
- Has the batterer transmitted a sexual disease to the intimate partner or spouse?
- Has the batterer destroyed, taken, or sold any of the intimate partner’s or spouse’s property?
- Has the batterer interfered with the intimate partner’s job, bank accounts, or investments?
- Is the intimate partner or spouse seeking all possible damages?
- Has the right to sue a former spouse in tort been expressly reserved in any divorce decree or separation agreement?
- Have the issues or claims in this tort suit been litigated before?
In addition to filing criminal charges, victims can sometimes take abusers to court to seek monetary compensation for the harm they have caused. The area of civil law that deals with intentionally or carelessly harming another person is known as tort law. Tort law aims to compensate the injured party and deter others from committing similar wrongful conduct.
In tort law, a "tort" refers to a wrongful act that harms another person. The harm can be physical, emotional, or financial. The person who commits the tort is known as the "tortfeasor" or the "defendant." The person who suffers the harm is called the "plaintiff" or the "injured party."
Tort law encompasses a wide range of scenarios and can include various types of torts, such as:
- Negligence: Negligence occurs when someone fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm to another person. This can involve actions or omissions that fall below a certain standard of care expected in a particular situation.
- Intentional Torts: These are deliberate acts that cause harm to another person. Examples include assault, battery, defamation (making false statements about someone that harm their reputation), and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
- Strict Liability: In certain situations, liability can be imposed on a party regardless of fault. This typically applies to cases involving dangerous activities or products, where harm is caused irrespective of negligence or intent.
- Nuisance: Nuisance involves interference with the use or enjoyment of another person's property, such as excessive noise or pollution.
When a person believes they have been wronged or injured by someone else's actions, they can initiate a civil lawsuit in tort law to seek compensation for their losses. Civil suits allow abuse victims to hold abusers accountable by seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
Tort cases are not usually suitable for pro se litigants, so it is recommended that people wishing to bring a case to court seek the assistance of an attorney. A civil claim requires proof that it is “more probable than not” that the tortious injury occurred. Tort claims often rely upon common (judge made) law and so require research into past legal cases. The information below summarizes some of the causes of action that may be available.
In the past, the courts held that a husband and wife could not sue each other because, legally, they were one person. This doctrine was called interspousal tort immunity. In a series of cases, the courts in Maryland have abandoned the interspousal immunity doctrine. Two cases that give the history of interspousal tort immunity are: Bozman v. Bozman, 276 Md. 461 (2003) and Lusby v. Lusby, 283 Md. 334 (1978).
If an abuser is convicted of a crime of assault, battery, or rape of the victim, the victim can sue in civil court to seek monetary compensation for the damages inflicted by the abuser.
The tort of assault is committed when:
- Someone threatens another person;
- Putting the person in fear of being physically hurt.
Read the law: Restatement (Second) of Torts § 21 (1965).
Under Maryland law, first degree assault occurs when a person intentionally inflicts or attempts to inflict serious physical injury to another person. First degree assault includes assault with a firearm and assault by strangulation.
Read the Law: Md. Code, Criminal Law § 3-202.
A battery is:
- The intentional, harmful, or offensive contact;
- Of another person without that person's consent.
The offensive touching does not have to be direct.
Read the law: Nelson v. Carroll, 355 Md. 593, 600 (1999) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 13, 18 (1965).
See also: Saba v. Darling, 320 Md. 45, 49 (1990) (stating that "[a] battery has been defined as a harmful or offensive contact with a person resulting from an act intended to cause the person such contact).
A person commits first-degree rape if they engage in vaginal intercourse or a sexual act with another person by force, or the threat of force, without the consent of the other person, and
- Dangerous weapon: uses or shows a dangerous weapon or something that seems like a dangerous weapon to the victim.
- Serious harm: suffocates, strangles, disfigures, or seriously hurts the victim or someone else during the crime.
- Fear of serious harm: threatens the victim or someone the victim knows, making them fear immediate harm like death, suffocation, strangulation, disfigurement, serious physical injury, or kidnapping.
- Accomplice: commits the crime with the help of another person.
- During burglary: commits the crime while involved in a first, second, or third-degree burglary.
Read the Law: Md. Code, Criminal Law § 3-303(a)(1) and (2).
A crime of second-degree rape occurs when a person engages in vaginal intercourse or a sexual act with another person by force, or the threat of force, without the consent of the other, and:
- Incapacity: the victim is mentally or physically incapacitated or helpless and the person performing the act knows or reasonably should know the victim is mentally or physically incapacitated or helpless, or
- Age: the victim is under 14 years of age while the person performing the act is at least four years older than the victim.
Read the Law: Md. Code, Criminal Law § 3-304(a).
Has the abuser intentionally, recklessly, or negligently caused the intimate partner or the parties’ children to suffer from emotional distress?
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Intentional infliction of emotional distress refers to a deliberate and extreme act or behavior by one person that causes severe emotional suffering or distress to another person. To establish a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, certain elements must typically be proven, such as:
- Intent: the person causing the distress must have intended to cause emotional harm or recklessly disregarded the high probability of causing such harm.
- Extreme and outrageous conduct: the behavior or actions must be considered extreme and beyond what society considers acceptable, often exceeding the bounds of decency.
- Causation: the intentional conduct must be the direct cause of the emotional distress suffered by the victim.
- Severe emotional distress: the distress experienced by the victim must be significant, causing substantial mental or emotional anguish.
Read the Law: Harris v. Jones, 281 Md. 560, 566, 570 (1977) (the law intervenes only where the distress inflicted is so severe that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it).
See also Hamilton v. Ford Motor Co., 66 Md. App. 46 (1986) (To be successful in a suit for intentional inflection of emotional distress, the emotional stress must "completely violate human dignity").
False imprisonment is the unlawful confinement of a person. To establish a claim of false imprisonment in tort law, the following essential elements must be proven:
- Unlawful: the confinement must be without legal justification or authority.
- Detention of the person: the victim suffers a “deprivation of liberty” that results in the removal or denial of the victim’s ability to move freely, make choices, or engage in activities they would normally have the right to do.
- Without consent: the confined person did not voluntarily consent to the confinement.
False imprisonment is frequently associated with assault or battery. A threat (assault) or actual use (battery) of physical force may cause the person to be unlawfully confined. Also, false imprisonment can occur when one person deceives or manipulates another person into staying somewhere against their will.
Read the Law: Watkins v. State, 288 Md. 597 (1984).
Wrongful death claims typically arise when another person's wrongful act, negligence, or intentional harm causes a person's death. In Maryland, certain surviving family members of a battered person may bring a wrongful death action seeking compensation for losses resulting from the death of their loved one.
The following individuals are generally eligible to file a wrongful death claim:
- Primary beneficiaries: this includes the deceased's surviving spouse, parents, and children.
- Secondary beneficiaries: if there are no primary beneficiaries, individuals related to the victim by blood or marriage, who were substantially dependent on the victim, may be eligible to bring a wrongful death claim.
To succeed in a wrongful death claim in Maryland, it is typically necessary to prove that the abuser’s wrongful or negligent conduct directly caused the death of the battered person.
An action for wrongful death by an abuser must be commenced within three years after the victim's death. Learn more about limitations.
If an intimate partner or spouse finds that they have contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the batterer, the injured person may have legal claims based on battery, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or fraud.
Read the Law: B.N. v. K.K, 312 Md. 135 (1988).
Conversion is the civil equivalent of the crime of theft. It is the wrongful taking of someone’s property. Conversion is an intentional tort. An intimate partner or spouse may have a legal claim for conversion if their property was taken or sold without their consent.
In a suit for conversion, the person filing the suit attempts to recover the value of the property taken. To make a case for conversion, the suing person must show:
- Legal ownership of the property;
- Possession or right to possession of the property;
- When the property was taken.
Read the Law: Lawrence v. Graham, 29 Md. App. 422 (1975) (a conversion is not the acquisition of the property of the wrongdoer, but the wrongful deprivation of a person of the property to the possession of which he is entitled).
Detinue and Replevin
Detinue and Replevin are used to get back property that has been taken. Detinue is used to get property, or its value, back after judgment. Replevin is used to get the property back before final judgment. To make a case for replevin, the suing person must show that they have an immediate right to possess the property. Detinue and replevin are covered in Maryland Rules 12-601 and 12-602.
The Rules indicate that the following must be included in a complaint for detinue or replevin:
- a description of the property being claimed and an estimation of its value,
- an assertion that the defendant is wrongfully withholding and detaining the property,
- a demand for the return of the property or payment of its value, and
- any claim for damages to the property or for its detention.
Intentional Interference with Economic Relations
If the batterer interferes with an intimate partner or spouse’s job, bank account, or investments, the interference may give rise to a claim for an economic tort. An economic tort can include interference with economic relations or prospective advantage.
When filing a lawsuit claiming intentional interference with economic relations, you must prove to the court that your claim meets the following elements:
- Intentional Interference: the defendant must have intentionally engaged in conduct that interfered with your economic or business relationships. This interference may involve actions such as inducing a breach of contract, making false statements, using wrongful means, or engaging in unfair competition.
- Calculation: you must show that the defendant’s interference was deliberately calculated to cause damage to your economic or business relationships.
- Causation: you must show that the defendant's intentional interference was the cause of the harm you suffered. You must show that the economic relationship or business expectancy would have been successful or continued if it had not been for the defendant's actions.
- Damages: you must show that you have suffered actual damages as a result of the intentional interference. This can include financial losses, loss of business opportunities, reputational harm, or other measurable harm.
In many instances a battered spouse or intimate partner can recover punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. General guidelines relating to recovery of punitive damages are:
- Punitive damages are not recoverable in actions for breach of contract.
- Such damages are recoverable in tort actions if malice is shown. The type or degree of malice required depends upon the nature of the tort.
- Actual or express malice requires an intentional or willful act (or omission). Malice "has been characterized as the performance of an act without legal justification or excuse, but with an evil or rancorous motive influenced by hate, the purpose being to deliberately and willfully injure the plaintiff."
- Punitive damages are not permitted for wrongful death.
- Read the Law: Cohen v. Rubin, 55 Md. App. 83 (1983).
- However, a wrongful death claim may allow damages for mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society, companionship, comfort, protection, marital care, parental care, filial care, attention, advice, counsel, training, guidance, or education.
Has the right to sue a former spouse in tort been expressly reserved in any divorce decree or separation agreement?
It is wise to reserve the right to bring a tort action in the divorce decree or separation agreement. Any agreement or decree that expressly waives such rights should be avoided because it will severely limit or extinguish a spouse's rights if a claim later arises later.
If the issues or claims in the tort suit have been litigated previously, the doctrines of claim preclusion and collateral estoppel may be relevant. Claim preclusion prevents a claim from being relitigated when already litigated and determined in a previous case. This protects parties from being sued multiple times for the same claims.
Collateral estoppel prevents an issue from being litigated twice if it was, or could have been, litigated in a previous suit. This can be helpful for a battered spouse or intimate partner when issues are determined in criminal proceedings and then are raised again in civil proceedings because the fault of a batterer may already be determined.