South Carolina can be a dangerous place for a married or cohabiting woman. This state has a particularly rotten and well-deserved reputation for being a den of domestic violence. Every year, it seems South Carolina ranks #1 in the country for men killing women. As a Charleston Family Court lawyer, and one who keenly feels the need to help put a stop to this cycle of violence, I regularly meet with and represent women who have suffered terribly at the hands of batterers. There are some wonderful organizations who do all they can to help women and children escape their abusers (My Sister’s House does yeoman’s work in this regard), but no escape is ever truly complete until the divorce is complete. And in South Carolina, alleging and proving physical cruelty can help a woman escape a marriage in as fast as 90 days, as compared to the year-long wait for a no-fault divorce. So what qualifies as physical cruelty, and how is it proven?
1. Physical cruelty, an historical definition.
“Physical cruelty, as used in divorce law, has generally been defined by our courts as actual personal violence, or such a course of physical treatment as endangers life, limb or health, and renders cohabitation unsafe … It is generally held that a single act of physical cruelty does not ordinarily constitute ground for divorce, unless it is so severe and atrocious as to endanger life, or unless the act indicates an intention to do serious bodily harm or causes reasonable apprehension of serious danger in the future.” Brown v. Brown, 215 S.C. 502 (1949). This case is something of the grandfather of physical cruelty law in this state, and reflects a view of domestic violence that is now somewhat antiquated. Regardless, this statement has been the basis for guiding our courts on the issue of physical cruelty for generations.
2. What constituted “physical cruelty” under this definition?
Until about 20 years ago, our courts adhered to the Brown definition fairly closely. “Slight violence,” like pushing and shoving, backing a woman into a corner to yell at her, ramming one’s car into another’s, or slapping a woman to “quiet her down” wouldn’t satisfy a Family Court that physical cruelty had occurred. In order to qualify for physical cruelty for a single instance of violence, truly life-threatening violence, like shooting one’s spouse in the chest, had to take place.
3. About 10 years ago, the definition started to loosen a bit.
As recently as 2010, a divorce on the ground of physical cruelty was upheld in a case where the husband shoved his wife against a wall, apparently without causing her injury. That act of violence, when coupled with testimony regarding a long history of abuse and threats of abuse, was sufficient for our Courts to find physical cruelty (even though, as a technical legal matter, the history of abuse probably should not fit into the equation because the wife had forgiven him for those acts). See Gorecki v. Gorecki, 387 S.C. 626 (Ct.App. 2010). What you see, though, is an overall trend toward granting the faster physical cruelty divorce, likely as political pressure mounts to move South Carolina off the top of the domestic violence rankings. I predict this trend will continue for some time, and the degree of proof and level of violence will continue to decrease somewhat as time continues to pass.
4. What should you do if you are trapped in an abusive relationship?
Legal advice aside, if you are in a relationship where somebody is putting his hands on you in a violent way, you should leave. This inevitably proves difficult for women everywhere, many of whom have no support system to rely upon, and children to protect. You should try to move in with friends or family, barring that, you should contact My Sister’s House, and ask them about services they could help you with. Just get out.
Our Courts have a system that allows abused women to seek an Order of Protection on an expedited basis, ostensibly without needing the assistance of a Charleston Family Court lawyer. You can find more information here and here. You may be able to get the Order of Protection, but you will almost certainly need a lawyer to help guide you through expediting your divorce. You need to move forward with filing for a divorce, protecting yourself and your children, and getting the support you need. If we can assist you in taking those steps, please don’t hesitate to call me.