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South v. North

May 19, 1997


Dicamillo, J.t.c. t/a

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dicamillo



Plaintiff seeks a Final Restraining Order under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -33 (Act). One requirement plaintiff must satisfy is to prove that defendant is a member of plaintiff's household. The question is whether defendant, who never lived with plaintiff, is considered a "household member" according to the Act. The Act provides no definition for "household member", and no reported decision is applicable to the present case.

Plaintiff, Lois South, age 74, lived with her daughter, Amy South, age 32, and grandson, Marc South, age 6, in the Mansion Apartments, Pine Hill, New Jersey. Defendant, Greg North, age 73, rented a different apartment in the same complex. Plaintiff and defendant had a dating relationship that ended seven years, before plaintiff filed a domestic violence complaint. Thereafter, defendant and Amy South became romantically involved. Marc South is a child of the relationship between Amy South and defendant.

Plaintiff and Amy South raised Marc South. After Marc's birth, defendant was a constant presence in Lois South's household. He went to the apartment at least three times each week, let himself in, stayed for long periods of time, cooked, ate and attended family gatherings. In addition, he regularly drove the South family on errands. Defendant and Amy South were engaged to be married, they saw each other regularly, and Greg North stayed overnight at the apartment when Lois South was not home.

Defendant had a volatile temper. He intimidated and threatened Lois South. He used his relationship with Amy South and Marc South as the grounds for his control. Greg North emotionally and physically abused Lois South. He threatened to forbid plaintiff from seeing her grandson and made false allegations of child neglect by plaintiff to the Division of Youth and Family Services. On March 25, 1997, Greg North hit Lois South with his cane, pushed her out of her apartment and locked the door. The Honorable Joseph M. Nardi Jr., J.S.C., granted Lois South a temporary restraining order (T.R.O.) against Greg North on the basis of these acts. After the T.R.O. was granted to plaintiff, Amy South moved into defendant's apartment with their son. Lois South was granted regular visitation with her grandson and now seeks a final restraining order.

For the entry of a Final Restraining Order, the Act requires:

(I) a determination that plaintiff is a "victim of domestic violence" defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d),

(II) a determination that defendant committed an act of "domestic violence" defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(a) and

(III) a consideration of the nonexclusive factors found in N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(a).


With respect to requirement one, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d) defines a victim of domestic violence as "a person protected under this act and shall include":

any person who is 18 years of age or older or who is an emancipated minor and who has been subjected to domestic violence by a spouse, former spouse, or any other person who is a present or former household member. "Victim of domestic violence" also includes any person, regardless of age, who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has a child in common, or whom the victim anticipates having a child in common, if one of the parties is pregnant. "Victim of domestic violence" also includes any person who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship.

In the present case, this first requirement is met if plaintiff can prove that she had a dating relationship with defendant or if she can prove that she and defendant were members of the same household. Lois South and Greg North had a dating relationship. However, that relationship ended seven years prior to plaintiff filing a domestic violence complaint. At that time, the Act did not define a victim of domestic violence as someone who had a dating relationship with defendant. In addition, the "dating relationship" criterion is not applied retroactively. D.C. v. F.R. 286 N.J. Super. 589, 670 A.2d 51 (App. Div. 1996).

Lois South may, however, be considered a victim of domestic violence if Greg North is a former member of her household. The term "household member" is not defined in the Act. When the plain language of a statute is unclear or ambiguous, the court must look at legislative intent to interpret the statute. State v. Maguire, 84 N.J. 508, 514, 423 A.2d 294 (1980); State v. Butler, 89 N.J. 220, 226, 445 A.2d 399 (1982). The court must harmonize the individual sections and read the statute in the way that is consistent with the overall legislative intent. State v. Sutton, 132 N.J. 471, 479, 625 A.2d 1132 (1993). Reading the statute as a whole will lead to a better feel not only for the letter of the law, but for the spirit as well. Beaudoin v. Belmar Tavern Owners Ass'n, 216 N.J. Super. 177, 184, 523 A.2d 256 (App. Div. 1987).

The Domestic Violence Act of 1991 amended the definition of "victim" by removing the word "cohabitant" and replacing it with "household member." N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19. The intent of the amendment was to expand coverage of the Act. As a result of the amendment, protection was extended to any person who has a close relationship with his or her batterer.

The statute "encourages the broad application of the remedies available under this Act in the civil and criminal courts of this State." N.J.S.A. 2C:25-18; Desiato v. Abbott, 261 N.J. Super. 30, 33, 617 A.2d 678 (Ch. Div. 1992). The Legislature broadened the statute by amendment to cover unforeseen and unspecified relationships that might deserve protection. In the present case, a determination that the defendant is not a household member would deny plaintiff protection from defendant. This result is inconsistent with the Act's intent to expand protection to unforeseen victims of domestic violence. "Such additional protection is necessary since spouses, former spouses, persons sharing parentage, and the like, often have continuing substantial reason or need in the future to deal with each other." Sperling v. Teplitsky, 294 N.J. Super. 312, 320, 683 A.2d 244 (Ch. Div. 1996).

The Legislature intended "to assure the victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse the law can provide." N.J.S.A. 2C:25-18. This purpose bestows upon the victim of domestic violence all possible protection so long as defendant's constitutional rights are not violated. The term "household member" is here viewed liberally, and consistent with the legislative intent.

"Household" is such a broad term that one court called it "chameleon like" and suggested that "like obscenity, [it] falls into the category of terms which defy a precise definition, yet are readily recognizable when encountered." Fireman's Fund of New Jersey v. Caldwell, 270 N.J. Super. 157, 164, 636 A.2d 606 (Law Div. 1993). Case law has developed under the Act, but there is no domestic violence case law that interprets the term "household member." Insurance, zoning and tort case law have set forth a liberal interpretation of the term. In insurance cases, the term "household member" is not limited to "family" or "blood." If a member's status is in doubt, and the inclusion of that member provides him with some benefit, then he is included in the household coverage. Mazzilli v. Accident & Casualty Insurance Co. Of Winterthur, Switzerland, 35 N.J. 1, 170 A.2d 800 (1961).

Household is not a word of art. Its meaning is not defined in certain commonly known and universally accepted limits....[ Id. at 8]. The term 'household' or 'resident of the household' cannot be so limited and strait-jacketed as always to mean, regardless of the facts ...

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