All marriages have their ups and downs, but there are some marriages that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Torturous levels of domestic abuse such as a history of beatings, marital rape and stalking, for example, can result in life-long physical and mental trauma. There are also intentional and reckless behaviors, such as infecting a partner with a sexually transmitted disease or defaming them to the point of causing financial ruin. Divorces resulting from criminal or highly damaging behaviors may involve claims for marital tort, or personal injury actions between spouses. Marital torts were illegal in New Jersey prior to the 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Meronoff v. Meronoff. This ruling resulted in the overturning of spousal immunity, which prohibited an individual from suing his or her spouse for injuries that were caused by that spouse.
The guidelines for marital tort claims were broadened in the 1979 case of Tevis v. Tevis, in which a wife suffered significant damage from being beaten by her husband. In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated that the abolition of the interspousal immunity doctrine “pertained to tortious conduct generally encompassing not only conventional negligence but only intentional acts, as well as other forms of intentional behavior, such as gross negligence, recklessness, wantonness and the like.” As a result, marital tort has come to include a wide range of injuries that are not listed in the statutes. A successful claim results in monetary compensation for the victim, on top of the standard domestic support and equitable distribution awards.
There are, however, very specific guidelines for how and when to file a marital tort claim. In Tevis, for example, the former wife was barred from proceeding with her claim based on the doctrine of single controversy. In essence, the single controversy doctrine dictates that all claims for behaviors that occurred during the marriage must be raised within the divorce complaint. Failure to do so automatically deprives that spouse of raising the claim later on, or after the divorce . It should be noted that the tort claim must be sufficiently related to the grounds for divorce, so that it becomes clear why the two actions must be resolved together. Even if there is a connection, the family court may choose not to resolve the tort claim, and/or advise that the claim be handled through a separate civil suit.
Divorcing spouses who believe they have a claim for additional compensation should consult a family law attorney about their rights and legal options. Remember that the claim has to be made in your initial divorce complaint, and there must be a solid connection between not just the marital tort claim, but between all your claims, and the underlying reasons for your divorce. Thus it's essential to work with a divorce attorney who has experience with martial torts and extreme cruelty filings. For more information on filing for interspousal damages within a divorce, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.
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