Abuser Ordered to Pay Damages to Domestic Violence Victim
Can Victims Request Damages in Domestic Violence Cases? A Recent Michigan Court Decision Says Yes
Julia and Craig Hamlin dated for three weeks, married, and after seven months’ of marriage, Julia filed for divorce from Craig after he pulled her around by her hair, punched and kicked, her, banged her head on the ground and damaged her truck with a shovel. Julia escaped to a neighbor’s home during the attack, was transported by ambulance to the hospital and medical reports showed that she suffered mild traumatic brain injury, suffered hearing loss due to a damaged ear drum, and she continued suffering from migraines and nightmares and PTSD. Craig was arrested and charged and eventually pled no contest to the criminal charges.
As part of her divorce complaint, Julia asked for personal injury damages caused by Craig’s domestic violence. Surprisingly, Craig counter sued claiming that Julia assaulted him, and he merely defended himself. The judge did not believe Craig and awarded Julia $250,000 for future damages and $46,860.14 in attorney fees. The Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s ruling of $250,000 in future damages but required to the trial court to review the “reasonableness” of the attorney fees.
We’ve often seen parties and attorneys bring a countersuit like Craig’s. After all, it then becomes a ‘he said-she said’ situation, and the abuser hopes that this will cause the victim and attorney to settle. Craig’s countersuit came at a price to him.
When Will a Michigan Court Consider Compensation for a Domestic Violence Victim?
Here’s what happened: in his criminal case, Craig entered a ‘no contest’ criminal plea agreement. This means that Craig did not admit guilt, but he would agree to be sentenced as if he was guilty. This avoided an admission of liability in a potential future civil litigation. Rules of Evidence provide that a no contest plea may not be used as evidence in civil litigation brought against the abuser, but the plea may be used as evidence to support a defense against a claim by the abuser.
Craig filed a counterclaim claiming Julie physically abused him, and thus Julia claimed she was allowed to use the no contest plea as evidence in the divorce proceeding. Craig quickly argued that he would drop his countersuit if in return Julia would agree to agree that the no contest plea would be inadmissible. The trial court ruled that it would not accept a conditional stipulation and admitted into evidence the no contest plea.
The Court of Appeals, which may review the trial court’s rulings for error when requested, ruled that Craig should have been allowed to dismiss his counterclaim for abuse, but even so, the additional evidence provided by Julia still allowed for the trial court to award the $250,000 in damages.
Craig’s gameplay of filing a countersuit seemed to have upset the trial judge and led to an award of $46,860.14 in attorney fees: the total amount of attorney fees Julia incurred. The judge took into consideration Julia’s minimal income of $7,000 and Craig’s substantial bank deposits of $109,000 in a three month period and similar deposits in prior years. The trial court failed to review whether Julia’s attorney’s fees had been reasonable. The judge should have reviewed if her attorney’s hourly rate was reasonable. Some of the factors the judge should have considered was the attorney’s experience, reputation and ability, how difficult the case was, the results obtained by the attorney and what expenses were included. Craig and Julia are headed back to the trial court for the judge to provide an opinion regarding the required factors to determine the reasonableness of attorney fees.
If you would like to review the Court of Appeals opinion, you may find it here: Hamlin v Hamlin.