Wife’s Liability for Husband’s Sex Crimes

Should a wife be liable to a child for sexual abuse suffered at the hands of the husband? The Washington Court of Appeals just handed down a fascinating case which discusses a spouse’s liability under Washington law for the tortious conduct of the other spouse. The rule is that the wife’s separate property is immune but community property is vulnerable if the wrongful conduct

“either (1) results or is intended to result in a benefit to the community or (2) is committed in the prosecution of the business of the community.”

In this case the fact that the boy did lawn work for the couple before the assaults was critical to finding community liability. The standard is awfully vague, which makes liability something that can often be argued.

But what if the community was in no way involved? The husband just went off on his own and sexually abused someone (or committed some other tort) far from home? The victim could go after the husband’s separate property but typically there is none. Most couples own community property without much separate property. Is the victim left empty handed? The rule is Washington is that, if there is no separate property, then the victim can get half the community property.

What if the wife files for divorce and enters into a property agreement that gives her the property? This will not work unless the division between the husband and wife is deemed fair.

This is certainly a messy area of law but I agree with the notion, particularly with respect to sexual predators, that there is some duty on the part of the wife, or non-offending spouse, to share some of the financial responsibility, rather than depriving the victim entirely.

This is a very tough call as both the non-offending spouse and the victim are innocent in a very important sense and both suffer mightily in the situation. All things being equal my scales tip a little more toward the victim.

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