by Michael F. Pezzulli
Recently I represented and tried a case on behalf of a young woman who had been the victim of a horrific attack by her ex-boyfriend. The facts of the case revealed that over the course of an attack that lasted hours, the ex-boyfriend violently raped her, inflicting knife wounds requiring nearly 500 stitches. The attack was so brutal that the blows to her face left many of the bones in her face broken. When the paramedics arrived, they believed she was dead.
The problem is not isolated. It is so pervasive that the CDC, (Centers for Disease Control), actually has a division of Violence Prevention, and has studied the problem extensively. The CDC monitors the problem closely and recently updated its findings in its National Intimate Partner and Sexual violence Survey.
As the CDC reports, the more accurate term is not really “domestic violence”, but rather “intimate partner violence” which includes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression (including coercive tactics) by a current or former intimate partner (i.e., spouse, boyfriend girlfriend, dating partner, or ongoing sexual partner).
Intimate partner violence: A tragically common problem
The problem is pervasive. The most recent CDC data shows that in the United States 43.6% of women (nearly 52.2 million) experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime and approximately 1 in 5 (21.3% or an estimated 25.5 million) women in the U.S. reported completed or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime. The repercussions of these violent assaults are significant and includes experiencing being fearful, concern for their safety, injuries, the need for medical care, help from law enforcement, missed work, and missed school, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. The symptoms are both acute and chronic, with the pain and shame never leaving the victim.
The data is shocking, but consistent with what I’ve seen in trying these types of lawsuits. Several years ago, I was handling a number of civil cases where young girls had been molested while attending school at a Catholic Church in Dallas. Two of the cases went to trial. The court brought in 1,000 jurors per case, and we questioned each jury for five weeks before the trials in what lawyers call the voir dire (from French “to see to speak”) to determine if any juror is biased and cannot deal with the issues in the case fairly. This gives lawyers the first opportunity to get a feel for the personalities and likely views of the people on the jury panel. The voir dire examinations revealed that approximately a third of the women in each panel had been the victim of some form of intimate partner violence.
The woman who survived the ex-boyfriend’s attack endured a criminal trial that fortunately put the perpetrator, her ex-boyfriend, behind bars. After the criminal trial, I was approached to try her civil case and I could not say no. We went to trial. The jury was equally horrified and awarded this young lady $40,615,000. This verdict was reported to be the 44th highest jury verdict in the United States for 2016. She had the courage to step up and seek justice for what had happened to her, which makes her one of the bravest people I have ever met. She wanted to be publicly identified as the victim to spread awareness about ending intimate partner violence. She has volunteered across the country to share her story and to speak out against this vicious form of violence.
Abusive partners can be abusive litigants: Shifting the power
In 2014, a New York City Domestic Violence Homicide Report revealed that fewer than a third of the people killed by their partners had ever called the police. While it is critical to encourage victims of intimate partner violence to contact the police, it may be as important for them to muster the courage to sue the perpetrator in civil court. As Amy Barasch, the former head of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence stated in her article “Justice for Victims of Domestic Violence”, “I have heard again and again that many of the victims need a lawyer. Not for criminal court, but for civil court.” She continued, “Abusive partners are often abusive litigants, dragging court cases on for months or years. Lawyers can shift the power to their clients.”
I’m here to say that is true.
Lawyers can be a lifesaver
The takeaway? Victims of intimate partner violence should recognize the fact that the violence will continue if they don’t reach out for help. Lawyers – particularly civil lawyers – should look hard at helping these victims. As Amy Barasch observed, “[f]or many victims of intimate partner violence, lawyers can be a lifesaver.”
Michael F. Pezzulli has been board certified in Civil Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization since 1986.