What Is Interspousal Immunity?
A common question asked about personal injuries today is whether or not a spouse can be sued for a personal injury. Classic rules once limited the abilities of spouses to sue one another, but a number of abolition laws throughout much of the 20th century have all but eliminated the classic rule’s precedent.
Prohibition against spouses suing each other is commonly referred to as "interspousal immunity." The immunity was established to prevent spouses from successfully prevailing in civil cases for recovery of damages in the case of a personal injury. Interspousal immunity was a part of common law. Today, the majority of states have abolished interspousal immunity.
Where Did Interspousal Immunity Come From?
The concept and doctrine of interspousal immunity arose in the 1960s, when the prevailing idea that a woman’s legal identity merged with her husband’s upon marriage. Based upon this premise, it did not make sense for a person to sue him or herself in essence.
It was also believed that tort laws between a husband and wife would destroy family harmony. As a result, the courts ruled such cases would affect the integrity of the family and its assets. This stance further supported the institution of interspousal immunity.
The woman’s suffrage movement and expansion of women’s rights led to the abolishment of interspousal immunity. Much of the reasoning behind interspousal immunity has all but been eliminated because every state now recognizes women with their own separate legal identity, regardless of marital status.
Courts began to recognize the lack of reasoning behind interspousal immunity and permitted spouses to sue each other if the tort was ruled intentional. The courts continued to expand this holding to allow for tort actions against spouses who caused injuries out of intentional or negligent conduct.
Despite the court’s recognition and permitting of spousal actions, it is important to note that some insurance companies have exclusions under their automotive or homeowner’s policies. As a result, should a spouse sustain injuries in an automobile accident at the hands of their spouse’s negligence, they may not be able to file a suit if their insurance policy does not allow one spouse to sue another.
Lastly, should a spouse file a tort action against the other, oftentimes the case will be spouse v. spouse, not spouse v. spouse’s insurance company. Insurance companies typically indemnify their clients. Should a legal arise against their client, insurance companies will pay for the legal defense and up to a certain amount of coverage based upon the policy. As a result, the injured individual would name their actual spouse as the defendant, not their insurance company.