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Freehe v. Freehe

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Interspousal tort immunity is abandoned in Washington, allowing spouses to sue each other for actions in tort because absent express statutory provision or compelling public policy, the law should not immunize tortfeasors or deny remedy to their victims.

    Facts. Plaintiff Clifford Freehe was injured on Defendant Hazel Knoblauch’s negligently maintained tractor on Defendant’s farm. Hazel Knoblauch is the name of the business owned as separate property by Plaintiff’s wife, and Plaintiff has no interest in such business, or profits earned from the business, and was not employed by Defendant.

    Issue. Whether interspousal tort immunity shall remain a valid defense for torts committed between spouses?

    Held.

    No, as no compelling rationale still exists for supporting the rule (see discussion below).

    Discussion. The origins of the rule of interspousal tort immunity comes from a time when wives were determined to be chattels of her husband, and in marriage, the couple was deemed one person (the husband). Consequently, after marriage, a woman no longer had the right to contract for herself, or to sue or be sued without joining the husband to the lawsuit. Furthermore, the husband became liable for the torts of his wife, committed either before or during the marriage.

    Because modern realities have changed (spouses no longer jointly liable for torts unless they would be so if unmarried), this reason for supporting interspousal immunity is no longer valid.

    Maintaining peace in the home cannot be a valid supporting reason, because either the spouses won’t sue each other, or the lawsuit is most likely one of many problems of the marriage. Criminal and divorce laws do not provide adequate remedies, either.  Finally, to date, it does not appear that allowing spousal tort actions would flood the court with trivial matrimonial disputes, and traditional tort notions of consent and assumption of risk could preclude various minor conflicts.

    The prospect of collusion and fraud to collect insurance benefits is not a valid justification for the rule, either, because the court is well equipped to ferret out the meritorious from the fraudulent claims in particular cases. Courts will instead rely on the legislature to deal with the problem as a question of public policy.

    Note: while complete abrogation of interspousal immunity is the majority rule, some states still maintain the immunity in limited contexts.


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