In 1994 Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act. The more formal title of the new law is the Civil Rights Remedies for Gender Motivated Violence Act. Before this statute, laws against domestic violence were almost exclusively at the state level. 

The Violence Against Women Act allows a person to sue for damages if another person “commits a crime of violence motivated by gender.” The new law is part of the federal government’s civil rights statute. If the crime of violence constitutes a felony against the person or the victim’s property, the victim can sue the assailant for both compensatory damages and punitive damages. 

Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the victim for the loss. The injuries could include medical expenses, lost wages, pain, and suffering. Punitive damages are an added amount of damages not for compensation but rather to punish the assailant and deter future abusive conduct. Punitive damages, however, are still paid to the victim. 

Under federal law, a victim of domestic violence also can seek injunctive relief or declaratory relief. This is basically the same as the order of protection discussed in the last section on “State Laws Regarding Domestic Violence.” 

The Violence Against Women Act allows a successful party to collect attorney’s fees in addition to damages. Legal actions under the act may be brought in state or federal courts. 

As a matter of pragmatics, it probably would not be worth the victim’s effort to sue under this new federal law unless the assailant has enough income and assets to pay damages. If the victim’s primary goal is to obtain an order prohibiting future abusive conduct, most states’ laws will do as well as the federal law. 

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