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Home / Articles / Legal / Yes, You Can Sue an Abuser

Yes, You Can Sue an Abuser

The ins and outs of suing an abusive partner in civil court

Yes, You Can Sue an Abuser

Betsy Rounds Thurston, 57, endured an abusive partner for the better part of a decade in her 30s. What started off as him love-bombing her and her young children quickly took a more sinister turn with threats of violence and outright abuse. There was gaslighting, derogatory comments, physical assaults and child abuse—at one point, she says her partner slammed her son’s head against the side of car after getting mad at him. Her son was only 7. Another time, he pushed Thurston down a flight of stairs and she broke her leg. 

“He told me if I didn’t tell the police, he’d pay my hospital bills.”

Except, of course, that was a lie. Instead, he continued his abuse. He threatened to get a gun and kill her and her children. He told her he’d kill her and throw her body into a nearby pit of wild boar. 

“Everything was too much. I saw reports of people who had experienced far worse and didn’t get jail time,” she says of her reason behind not reporting him. She didn’t know how to get free of him except to take legal action.

“It was then that I decided I was going to sue him.”

The idea came to her while watching the O.J. Simpson trial when she saw that the family of one of the victims, Ron Goldman, was able to sue Simpson for $33.5 million in civil court. Evidence that wasn’t allowed in the criminal trial was permitted in civil court. Thurston had evidence of her ex-partner’s abuse—photos of bruises all over her body, evidence of threats he’d made.

“We went for assault and battery. There had been so many incidents, but I listed 14.”

She also sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress, listing six incidents there, as well as negligent infliction of emotional distress. The case took 13 months from the time he was served until it was settled in mediation. She says it cost her about $10,000 out of pocket, and while she can’t reveal how much the final settlement was, she says it was enough to recoup that cost and more. 

It wasn’t an easy journey, and she says she was retraumatized while going through the trial, but ultimately, she says it was worth it and she’d advise other survivors to consider it. 

“I was probably the only person who ever held him accountable,” she says. Today, she says she no longer lives in fear. 

“I’m no longer scared because he lost his legs so I can finally run faster than him. If you just wait long enough, karma comes through.”

A Q&A With a Lawyer Who Sues Abusers

For nearly 40 years, Richard Ducote has stood up for domestic violence and child abuse survivors —literally and figuratively. As an acclaimed family law attorney and law reformer in Pittsburgh, Penn., he’s a guy that abusers don’t want to see in court. 

So, when he spoke at the most recent Battered Mothers Custody Conference in New York last year, and he told the mothers in the room that they had more than one option for finding justice, survivors were intrigued. 

Criminal court isn’t the only option, he said. After all, it’s been shown that less than 2 percent of domestic violence perpetrators will ever face jail time. 

“You can sue your abuser, just like if he ran you over with his car.” And, undoubtedly, some abusers had probably tried just that. 

We asked Ducote to elaborate. Why should abuse survivors consider suing an abuser?

Ducote: It’s a very empowering remedy that a lot of people overlook. You get a jury trial. You have a different standard of proof— while you need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court, there’s much less burden of proof in civil court. I say pursue what you can control. I look at criminal prosecution in all these cases as gravy—you can’t control the criminal justice system.

DS: What can you sue an abusive partner for exactly and why don’t more survivors know this is an option?

Ducote: When you have a domestic violence claim, the victim has a lawsuit against the abuser, just like they’d have with anyone who inflicted harm on them. Most family court lawyers are one-trick ponies. They do family law and that’s it. That’s very disconcerting because their training is more than sufficient for them to at least realize people have these lawsuits. There have been some cases where survivors sue their divorce lawyers for malpractice for not advising them of this.

The fact that [abuse] happened in your home doesn’t mean you can’t sue. It amazes me that people don’t realize this. If you’re walking down the street and someone hits you with a baseball bat, you can sue them, but you can also do it if it happens in your own home. You can sue for personal injuries and, in some states, punitive damages on top of that.

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DS: Do courts allow you to sue your spouse or do you have to wait until you’re divorced?

Ducote: Sometimes you can’t sue your spouse while you’re still married and it’s [the lawsuit] suspended until your divorce. [Check your state’s laws.] But we’ve had some cases where we file lawsuits during a divorce and as part of the settlement, custody is worked out. For example, the protective parent will give up damages if the father agrees to the custody rules and a structured payment plan. However, if the father defaults, mom gets full damages. And we come after him from every conceivable angle. Fighting for custody is punishment to the mom, however, when you start taking [the abuser’s] stuff away from them, things change. 

DS: Can you sue an abuser even if they didn’t inflict physical violence?

Ducote: Different states have different rules, but there is an intentional infliction of emotional distress, which is more than just something minor. If you’re being called names daily, being isolated, being threatened —I’m going to kill you—then that will suffice for a lawsuit. Some states require that there be some physical contact, so it all depends on your specific state. 

DS: Do you have to have filed a police report in order to sue?

Ducote: No. It’s like everything else—that’s an element of proof. If you go to court and you say, I got hit by a car, they’ll ask, did you call the police? If not, then that’s something the jury will take into account. 

DS: Will suing an abuser put the survivor in more danger from them?

Ducote: I have found it to be just the opposite—most of these abusers are bullies and bullies don’t do well when people stand up to them. I’ve confronted these abusers, big hot-shot abusers, and say we’re not taking your shit anymore and that’s the end of it. I think they respond to that. 

[Survivors: Only you know what will keep you the safest from an abuser. Always consider speaking to a trained domestic violence advocate and consider creating a safety plan, even after separation or divorce.]

DS: Can you involve children in the lawsuit if they’re victims as well?

Ducote: Yes. I’m about to deliver a case in Louisiana where an abusive father got custody and the mother is bringing the suit for her 16-year-old daughter. In another case, we got a $16 million judgment once against an abusive father in Virginia who molested his daughter. 

DSCan’t an abuser just refuse to pay?

Ducote: Yes, but then you go seize their assets, you garnish their wages, you seize and sell their stuff. 

DS: What is the average cost and time to sue an abuser?

Ducote: Once the suit is filed, it depends—you have to look at the attorney’s schedule, the court docket. We have some [abusers] that settle without filing suit. Consider that if you don’t file the lawsuit, that time still passes with no benefit to you. As far as cost, you can work with a contingency fee, meaning your lawyer will get a percentage of the settlement based on what they recover.

To learn more about civil suits, contact a lawyer with domestic violence experience