The Maryland Court of Appeals for the first time has given a wife the right to sue her husband for damages in a case where the wife charged she had been threatened with a rifle, forced from a roadway and raped by her spouse and one of his companions.
The ruling, by the state's highest court, will allow civil lawsuits in cases where there has been an "intentional, outrageous" wrong.
This, said legal observers, could include cases of wife beating or other serious assault cases between husbands and wives.
Neither the District of Columbia nor Virginia allows civil damage suits between spouses in such cases.
Precisely what situations the new ruling will cover will depend on future court decisions, lawyer said.
The Court of Appeals ruling came in a case brought by a Prince George's County woman who sued her husband, from whom she was separated, in county Circuit Court for $4.4 million.
She charged in her suit that while she was driving on a county road on the night of Feb. 16, 1976, her husband "pulled alongside. . . in his pickup truck and pointed a high-powered rifle at her." As she sped away, another truck, occupied by two men she did not know, "forced her off the road, nearly causing a collision," the suit charged.
Her husband, pointing the rifle at her, then forced his way into the car and drove off with her, as the two men followed, she charge. Stopping in Anne Arundel County, she was where he struck her, tore off her forced to enter her husband's truck, cloths and despite her "desperate attempts" at defense, raped her, the suit said. One of the two men also raped her, and she was able to fight off the other, she charged. Her husband allegedly assisted both men.
After all this, she was released and told by her husband "that he would kill her if she informed anyone" about what had happened, the suit said.
Her lawyer, Theodore Mast, charged in other court papers that the attack and rape had been her husband's "response" to her filing for divorce about a month earlier.
Her husband was indicted for rape and assault in Anne Arundel County, but the prosecution later was dropped.
A Prince George's County judge dismissed the civil lawsuit last year when the husband's lawyer argued that under Maryland law a wife has no right to sue her husband.
The Court of Appeals this week reversed that ruling, declaring in an opinion written by Judge Marvin H. Smith, that: "We can conceive of no sound public policy in the latter half of the 20th century which would prevent one spouse from recovering from another for the outrageous conduct here alleged."
The court did not address the Maryland statutes or the common law doctrines that still prevent suits between husbands and wives in negligence cases, such as when there is an injury in an auto accident.
Virginia does allow lawsuits in this latter type of case, but not in the type now allowed under the Maryland ruling.
Del. Pauline Menes (D-Prince George's), who has fought for the past three years to change Maryland law to allow lawsuits in these cases, said the new ruling "will go a long way to helping Maryland women protect themselves. Just the threat of financial responsibility will stay many a husband's hand."
Several women who testified in favor of Mene's bill before the House Judiciary Committee told stories of being beaten, severely injured and then having to bear the expense of hospitalization, and even reconstructive surgery, themselves, Menes said.
The new ruling may allow them to sue for damages for these expenses, she observed.
Virginia Del. Raymond E. Vickery Jr. (D-Faifax/Falls Church) also tried to push similar legislation in his state's General Assembly, but said he was "laughed out of the committee room."
Lawyer Mast said about 25 of the states allow some form of lawsuits between husbands and wives.