Written by attorney David Perry Davis

Suing for domestic torts in New Jersey

Abuse / domestic violence during a marriage is referred to as "domestic torts." A "tort" is a "non-contractual wrong", meaning that the damages arise out of a violation of a duty (here, the duty not to assault someone), not a violation of a contract. Generally, a suit for domestic torts needs to be filed with a divorce complaint under something called "the entire controversy doctrine" - all related claims need to be brought within one lawsuit (the divorce action). There is a two year statute of limitations for damages. BUT.... There is an exception if the person seeking damages suffers from "battered spouse syndrome", meaning that she or he was too psychologically impaired to take action earlier as a result of the abuse. This is called a "Tevis claim" (named after the case that established this rule of law, Tevis v. Tevis). Therefore, an assault that occurs within two years of the complaint is a "Domestic Torts Claim", an assault that predates two years is a "Tevis Claim." If you qualify, you can go as far back as you need to. But be advised - qualifying involves having an expert (a psychologist or psychiatrist) and is a contentious, expensive process and applications for it are often (not always) denied - that would leave you able to sue only for domestic tort damages that occurred within two years of the complaint being filed (the statute of limitations for a personal injury suit). Two examples of cases where I've had success with this -- Wife was given genital herpes by husband four years earlier and was hit regularly by him before she "got out." Her psychologist provided a report (it was around $3,500) saying she had battered wife syndrome and was psychologically unable to proceed earlier. Court agreed and, in essence, wiped out his interest in the house ($375,000) via its damages award. Another - a man was regularly hit, including an assault 8 years ago with a steel pan that broke his eye orbit and left him with a permanent sight loss in the eye. Same result (but different numbers on the damages). I've seen, btw, many more cases where people have tried to make the standard and failed. I defended one where the Wife had taken photos of bruises on her arm, some inflicted 4 years earlier, some inflicted shortly before separation. The judge agreed that the fact that Wife had the wherewithal to build a case by photos showed she was able to prosecute one. Only the three assaults that occurred in the two years before the complaint was filed were permitted (and judge awarded $2,500 in compensatory and punitive damages per hit, $7,500 total). Finally, you are entitled to "sever" domestic torts issues and have them (and the associated damages) heard by a jury (Brennan v. Orbin), but judges have discretion over whether to do this based on a complicated legal test. I've yet to have a judge impanel a jury - never went to app div on either try as the cases settled before trial.

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