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Recent Appellate Division Case Clarifies Discovery Issues Involving Victims of Domestic Violence Who Seek Damages in a Civil Suit

A recent Appellate Division case held that a defendant who has a final restraining order entered against him/her is not barred from defending him or herself against a claim for damages in a civil suit. In L.T. v. F.M., the trial court prohibited the defendant from defending himself against plaintiff's claims for damages related to the domestic violence she suffered at defendant's hands.  

The trial court determined that because a family judge had found that defendant committed the acts of domestic violence, defendant was unable to defend himself in the civil suit for damages. The trial court also admitted into evidence a copy of the final restraining order entered against defendant in the family court. In review of the trial court's decision, the Appellate Division determined that final restraining order hearings are handled in a summary or rapid matter and that the parties are deprived of the opportunity to obtain discovery. On the other hand, a civil suit permits extensive discovery and includes separate burdens of proof. Therefore, the decision handed down by the family part judge should not also be dispositive of the issues involved in the civil suit. The Appellate Division also determined that a copy of the final restraining order should not have been permitted as it was too prejudicial to defendant. The admission of the order created the inference that if a court found defendant guilty of domestic violence in a prior proceeding, the defendant is more likely guilty of the present charges.

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