Sueing Your Spouse for Domestic Violence

California Family Law Articles
Sueing Your Spouse for Domestic Violence

If you’re a victim of domestic violence, it’s possible to sue your abuser spouse in civil court for your injuries under tort law.

California Civil Code section 1708.6 is the governing law for the tort of domestic violence. It requires that the plaintiff suffered injury from the abuse. “Abuse,” however, is defined by both the Penal Code (§13700) and the Family Code (§6320), and can include emotional abuse, such as when the abuser exercises “coercive control” over the victim, harasses the victim, and destroys their peace. Of course, suing someone for emotional harm, without accompanying physical harm, is made more difficult by issues regarding proving that the injuries were caused by the abuser and also proving damages. But as any domestic violence victim knows, even emotional abuse can result in physical symptoms due to the trauma caused by the abuser. Thus, the domestic violence victim may experience chronic fatigue/pain, sleep disorders, anxiety, and other PTSD like symptoms.

Another important aspect of Civil Code section 1708.6 in domestic violence cases is that the abuser is liable for both compensatory and punitive damages and for reasonable attorney’s fees. Also, a special statute of limitations for these cases (§340.15) extends the limitation period for filing the lawsuit to three years from the last act of domestic violence, rather than the typical two years for personal injury cases. Where there is ongoing abuse, and the most recent act occurred within three years of the lawsuit being filed, the plaintiff may recover for all past acts of abuse by the same defendant. Pugliese v. Superior Court (2007) 146 Cal.App.4th 1444, 1451.

Finally, if you are in the process of divorcing your abuser spouse, a very important aspect of the domestic violence cause of action is Family Code section 2603.5, which provides:

“The court may, if there is a judgment for civil damages for an act of domestic violence perpetrated by one spouse against the other spouse, enforce that judgment against the abusive spouse’s share of community property, if a proceeding for dissolution of marriage or legal separation of the parties is pending prior to the entry of final judgment.”

This important law allows the domestic violence victim to avoid the difficult challenge of later collecting a judgment against the abuser defendant, who may attempt to hide or dissipate assets while the case is pending. In the context of a 1708.6 claim involving a married couple, those assets will often be under the control of the family court.

If an individual is in the process of divorcing and the assets are significant, section 1708.6 provides victims of domestic violence with a valuable tool for obtaining justice. Some abuse victims will need to pursue their tort claims all the way to trial before using the enforcement mechanism set forth in Family Code section 2603.5. However, in a large number of cases, the pendency of a meritorious tort claim may motivate an abusive spouse to agree to a larger division of the community assets as a settlement of the tort claim.


David Dworakowski is a certified family law specialist and a founding partner at Quinn & Dworakowski, LLP, a premier family law firm in Irvine. Mr. Dworakowski takes tremendous pride in his work. For over 30 years he has been helping clients achieve outstanding results.

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