According to Voices Beyond Assault, a women-led non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing and empowering the lives of people who have experienced sexual violence, sexual assault, and abuse is a growing epidemic. Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, reports the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men victims.
Intimate partner violence/ domestic violence has escalated during the COVID pandemic. Psychiatry Advisor, reports that physical cases nearly doubled, with a five-fold increase in severe and a four-fold increase in very severe injuries. Potential reasons for an increase in physical violence and severity include “various stressors such as isolation, socioeconomic instability, fear of infection, absence of community support, increased substance use, and increased time spent with partners at home.”
As a partner of a national plaintiff litigation firm, I have led and been involved in many high-level litigations and negotiations that resulted in favorable settlements for our clients. These include the $320M Cuyahoga Opioid Settlement, World Trade Center Litigation, and the $641.2M Flint Water Crisis agreement, among many others. Few cases, however, are as disturbing as abuse cases, whether they concern domestic violence or sexual assault.
Over the years I have represented clients who are abuse victims in both civil and criminal suits. I have commented in the media on the need for victims of sexual assault to take their power back by filing civil lawsuits, as in the case of Charity Carson; biased male views toward female victims in the case of the Playboy Model Murder case; and defining consent. These experiences have provided me with an insight into how abuse begins and escalates.
Here is what I want every woman and man to know:
There are multiple levels of domestic violence and abuse. It can start slowly, like a steady drip—then it escalates.
Physical abuse often starts as emotional abuse: insults, criticism, and verbal attacks. There is a lot of gaslighting: manipulative behavior that makes a victim question their own sanity. The victim becomes confused and second-guesses what is really happening. That is one reason victims can resist acting against it when it begins; they aren’t sure abuse is what is happening to them.
Recognize when you are a victim od domestic violence
Domestic abuse is a crime of silence. When it takes place, it happens in a private setting and continues in isolation. The victim can feel guilty, like they did something wrong, because the abuser may have gotten them to do something they feel embarrassed about and holds it over them.
Self-check for symptoms of abuse.
Confusion, not trusting your senses and judgment, insomnia, stomach problems, and depression are common symptoms of abuse victims. Such issues can deepen if you are being isolated from socializing and spending one-on-one time with family and friends, a common ploy of abusers to reinforce your dependence on them.
Realize it isn’t you—it’s them.
Domestic Violence or Abuse will only escalate, so reaching out for support from informed and confidential sources of help is critical at the earliest time abuse begins. If your abuse has gone past that stage, it is never too late to get help. Never think it is, or that no one will understand, or that you will be judged. You are not alone. Abuse happens in every economic and social level of society.
Don’t wait for the abuser to “get better.” He (or she) won’t. Instead, do everything possible to leave the situation and protect yourself.
Know you have legal options.
You can sue in civil court for the abuse you experience in a relationship—even emotional abuse. Civil lawsuits require a “preponderance of the evidence,” when the victim convinces the fact finder that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true. Criminal cases are harder to pursue because it is hard to prove abuse beyond a reasonable case.
Fortunately, it is becoming more common for victims to sue their abusers years after the abuse has occurred. It is a way to rectify the wrongs and back take control of their life. For many, it is an essential part of their healing.
Recent Legislation in New York
In May 2022, the Adult Survivor Act was signed into law in the state of New York. It provides survivors of sexual abuse that occurred when they were over the age of eighteen an additional one-year lookback window to file claims, regardless of when the abuse occurred.
Marie Napoli has over twenty-five years of experience handling personal injury, medical malpractice, mass tort, and complex litigation matters. As a partner of a national plaintiff litigation firm, she has been involved in many high-level negotiations that resulted in favorable settlements for their clients. She is a legal and current affairs news commentator for numerous national media outlets. She has also been published by legal publications such as The New York Law Journal on topics including the MeToo Movement, Human Trafficking, and Sexual Harassment and Abuse.