Injury from Abuse
Nobody should be subject to physical, verbal or emotional abuse, but it happens. An abuser can use a variety of “weapons” to hurt others, including objects (e.g., guns, knives, sticks), body parts (e.g., hands, teeth, feet), words (e.g., verbal abuse, threatening or fighting words, editorial letters) and technology (e.g., Facebook bullying, cyber-spying). Victims of abuse often suffer physical, emotional and psychological injuries, as well as reputational damages, loss of income and lost business opportunities. Abusers can be family, acquaintances or strangers, and sometimes even law enforcement personnel.
Physical abuse can range from an unwanted or offensive touch to serious bodily harm or death. No matter where the abuse occurs (e.g., home, workplace, church, mall), physical abuse may give rise to a private cause of action. Accidents and innocent touches are not considered physical abuse, since intent is usually a key element of physical abuse. If you suffer physical injuries or financial loss due to physical abuse, you may be entitled to recover from the wrongdoer.
Assault and Battery
A common form of physical abuse is assault and battery. While definitions may vary from state to state, assault is generally committed when someone puts another person in fear of serious bodily harm or offensive contact. Battery is generally defined as the intentional and unwanted touching of another person. Battery can be immediate and direct, such as hitting someone with a bat or throwing a rock at someone. It also can be remote and indirect, such as setting a trap that will cause harm to someone at a later time even when the attacker is not around. The phrase “assault and battery” is often used without differentiating between the fear of being hurt and actually being hurt. When you’re the victim of an attack, the legal distinction between the assault and battery doesn’t matter.
A person who commits an assault or battery may be charged with a crime. Depending on the circumstances, assault and battery charges could be misdemeanor charges or could be felony charges. Even if your attacker is charged for committing assault or batter, that does not change your right to file a personal injury lawsuit. If you suffered loss or damages at the hands of an attacker, talk to a personal injury attorney to evaluate your case and to help you identify your damages. Damages can include any financial loss, but also can include psychological and emotional trauma, your inability to contribute to housework, stress on certain interpersonal relationships and more.
Emotional abuse is often overlooked as a cause of personal injury because it doesn’t leave visible wounds. It can, however, cause serious emotional and psychological injury to its victims and is often a precursor to physical abuse. Emotional abuse includes humiliation, ridicule, threats, name calling, sexual pressure, blame and more.
One form of emotional abuse garnering a lot of press lately is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying occurs when someone uses technology (such as Facebook or Twitter) to harm or threaten another person. There are a number of tactics people use to cyberbully, including direct attacks on public forums, cyberstalking, impersonating someone else, subscribing someone to pornographic email lists and “outing” someone without their permission. Cyberbullying can result in severe emotional trauma, financial loss and even death from suicide.
Cyberbullying may be a criminal act, but it also can be the basis for a personal injury lawsuit. Since most personal injury causes of action were not written with today’s technology in mind, there may be several different causes of action that can be used to recover damages from cyberbullying (e.g., negligence, assault and defamation). However, the cause of action most applicable, and which most states recognize, is intentional infliction of emotional distress. To bring a case for intentional infliction of emotional distress, you need to show that (1) the conduct was so outrageous or extreme that it is considered atrocious and intolerable, (2) the abuser intended to cause severe emotional distress, (3) there is a causal connection between the conduct and the victim’s injuries, and (4) there must be actual (provable) severe emotional distress.
If you’ve been cyberbullied, you should consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to see if your situation fits an intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action.
While the First Amendment protects our right to free speech, there are limits. For example, your employer cannot verbally harass you because you’re a woman (that’s not only harassment but it’s also discrimination). You cannot yell “FIRE” in a crowded theater just to see how people react. “Fighting words” that are likely to incite violence are also prohibited. Defamation is perhaps the most common form of verbal abuse that gives rise to personal injury lawsuits.
Defamation: Libel and Slander
Defamation is when you intentionally communicate something about someone else that you know is false and it harms that person’s reputation. While defamation may be a crime in some jurisdictions, it also can give rise to personal liability. When you are considering a defamation lawsuit, the devil is in the details and there are factual and legal nuances that can make or break the case.
Libel and slander are different kinds of defamatory acts. Libel refers to written defamation and slander refers to verbal (spoken) defamation. We live in a society that takes pride in political and social disagreements. We are free to express our opinions about politicians, movie stars and even our neighbors. If you don’t like someone’s hair, you can share your opinion. If you disagree with someone’s views on abortion, you are free to express your disagreement. Just don’t cross the line into defamation by broadcasting untrue personal attacks against your opponents.
While the elements of a defamation case may differ slightly from state to state, you are usually required to prove the following:
- The statement must be “published”, which means the libel or slander must be spoken, gestured, written, or put into a picture. (Libel is usually considered more severe than slander because of its lasting nature; words spoken can be remembered, but a Facebook post can be seen over and over for years to come).
- The statement must be false. Generally speaking if a statement cannot be proven false, it isn’t defamation. Note, however, that courts in some jurisdictions have found malicious but truthful statements to be defamatory.
- The statement must not be privileged. Even if a statement can be proven false, it may not be defamation in some situations. For example, a witness who testifies falsely in court cannot be sued for defamation (but may be charged with perjury).
- Some injury to the victim must result. To be actionable, the injury complained of should be actual and substantial. Being shunned by your community, losing a job or being harassed by the press can all be substantial injuries. Hurt feelings alone are usually not enough.