Woman Beaten by Husband Wins Suit
Friday, August 18, 2006
When police arrived, Deborah Martin told them she didn't know if she'd been punched two or three times -- or two or three hundred. From the looks of the photos taken a few hours later, it was probably closer to the latter.
Martin's husband, Ernest John Lofgren, had pinned her to the kitchen floor in their Fairfax Station home in September 2003 and hit her repeatedly. He later pleaded guilty to assault and battery and served eight weeks in jail. Earlier this year, the couple divorced, which a court commissioner blamed on "the husband's barbaric treatment of the wife."
But before the divorce was final, Deborah Martin took one more step. She sued her husband. And this week, Fairfax County jurors decided Lofgren needed to do more than just a short jail stint. They ordered him to pay Martin $550,000, in part for the extensive bills to repair her face -- and mind -- and to make a statement that domestic violence is intolerable, jurors said.
Domestic violence victims in the Washington area rarely have stepped into the civil arena, experts said, for a variety of reasons, including reluctance to tangle with the legal system again, difficulty in finding a lawyer willing to take the case and inability to get money from a batterer even if they win.
But nationally, it is becoming more common, said Jeffrey R. Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association in Washington.
"Domestic violence victims are increasingly using the civil justice system to hold their perpetrators accountable," Dion said. If a batterer is arrested, he said, the victim often loses a key source of financial support and may need medical help, counseling or to move.
"I was unable to work and have any income at all," said Martin, 51, a former office manager, who left Virginia less than two months after the attack, escaping what she said was Lofgren's imprisonment of her in their home.
Martin suffered a broken cheekbone, broken nose and dislocated jaw, as well as severe dental injuries. But she said she also had to overcome "the embarrassment."
"The shame level is incredibly high. That's how all your victims feel," she said. "Maybe that's why a lot of women don't pursue personal injury cases."
Court records indicate that at the time of the incident, Lofgren was a software developer with Northrup Grumman Corp. who earned $93,000 a year. He no longer is employed there. Lofgren's attorney, Robert J. Cunningham, said he did not condone the beating but that the jury in the civil case "didn't hear the entire story due to pretrial rulings." A Fairfax judge prohibited Lofgren from putting on a defense because he did not respond to pretrial filings.
Lofgren, 41, did not testify at the two-day trial. But a commissioner in chancery and a Fairfax circuit judge -- who both heard Lofgren and Martin testify in their divorce case last fall -- found Lofgren at fault despite his claims that Martin goaded him into violence.
"The Commissioner finds the wife to be far more credible on the events of that day," Commissioner Brian M. Hirsch wrote after a pre-divorce hearing. "Even if . . . the Commissioner were to believe the husband's version of the events, his response to the wife, a woman of such slight build (i.e. 115 pounds), was grossly disproportionate to what the husband alleged her to have done."