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Is Verbal Abuse a Crime?

man verbally abusing woman
Verbal abuse in and of itself is not a crime.

The popular saying is

“sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” 

But, while words can’t physically hurt another human being, does that mean it’s not a crime?

Is verbal abuse a crime?

The answer is no. Verbal abuse is not a crime. You can’t be sued for name-calling, yelling, or insulting someone. When you shout, yell, or offend a romantic partner, spouse, child, coworker, or stranger, it’s not illegal, and the police won’t be able to arrest you for this act alone. 

angry woman
In a domestic violence or harassment case, evidence of verbal abuse can be used by the complainant to support their case.

However, documented incidents of verbal abuse can be used by a complainant in filing for a domestic violence case or harassment case.

What’s more, if you are yelling loudly in a private or public place, a disorderly conduct misdemeanor charge can be filed against you.

Defining Verbal Abuse

To better understand why verbal abuse is not a crime, we need a better definition. Verbal abuse is the act of using language to hurt, frighten, humiliate, or harm another person

It does not involve physical contact and is limited only to spoken and written words directed at a specific person. 

Furthermore, it is considered abuse when it follows a pattern over some time, is long-term, and is repetitive throughout the relationship between an abuser and their victim.

Verbal Assault Is a Crime

The only kind of verbal abuse that is considered to be a crime is verbal assault. Verbal assault is when a person threatens another person with imminent bodily harm, such as punching, kicking, stabbing, or any form of physical violence. 

Abusive man intimidating a woman
Verbal assault, as opposed to verbal abuse, is a criminal offense.

The act of verbal assault can occur in person but also over the phone, in electronic form, or via another person.

This crime is classified as a misdemeanor, with fines ranging from $500 to $2000, depending on the severity and the impact on the victim. If found guilty, the offender may face jail time of up to 180 days.

When Can Verbal Abuse Be Considered a Crime?

As previously mentioned, verbal abuse is not considered a crime. However, if it occurs within an intimate or familial relationship, it may be classified as an act of psychological abuse. This falls under the category of domestic violence, which is a crime in the United States.

Verbal abuse can be considered psychological abuse when it is repetitive, excessive, and consistent with a pattern of behavior over an extended period. This form of abuse usually involves a person in a position of authority or dominance and another in a subordinate role.

Psychological abuse of children
Verbally abusing children can be deemed psychological abuse.

Examples of relationships in which verbal abuse can occur include intimate partnerships, parent-child dynamics, interactions between elderly individuals and their children, or relationships between bosses and employees.

People in positions of power often use verbal abuse to exert their control and authority over someone, which can often include intentionally hurting or harming a person’s self-worth and psychological health.

Some examples of verbal abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Name-calling
  • Scolding
  • Insulting
  • Yelling
  • Harassing
  • Labeling
  • Rebuking what you say
  • Humiliating you in front of people

The use of language that aims to make an individual feel uncomfortable, undermine their self-esteem or self-worth, question their intelligence, instill fear of imminent danger, and occurs repetitively, excessively, and severely over a given period is considered verbal abuse.

Types of Verbal Abuse:

Type of Verbal AbuseIs it a Crime?When can it be considered a Crime?Potential Consequences
Verbal abuseNoIf it occurs in an intimate or familial relationship and is classified as psychological abuse. Evidence of verbal abuse can be used by a complainant in filing for a domestic violence case or harassment case. Yelling loudly in a private or public place can result in a disorderly conduct misdemeanor charge.No legal consequences
Verbal assaultYesWhen a person threatens another person with imminent bodily harm. Classified as a misdemeanor, fines ranging from $500 to $2000, and jail time of up to 180 days.Fine and possible jail time
Verbal abuse in the workplaceNot necessarilyIf it is severe and excessive enough that it causes psychological distress, the employee can file a suit under Employment Law. Discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress cases can be filed.Compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees

Why Verbal Abuse Can Be Considered As Domestic Violence

Domestic violence covers different types of abuse, which include physical abuse (the most common and most reported), emotional abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse. 

Domestic violence
Domestic violence includes a number of different kinds of abuse, including emotional abuse.

While most people only consider physical abuse to be domestic abuse, other forms of abuse towards an intimate partner or family member are considered to be domestic violence.

Verbal abuse falls under psychological abuse because the repercussions cause psychological trauma. Some of the effects of psychological abuse are as follows:

  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Job loss due to inability to be productive
  • Health issues

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, with additions in 1996, recognizes psychological abuse as domestic violence, a criminal, and a civil crime. Penalties for a domestic violence misdemeanor can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the details of the offense but may include jail and fines.

A protective order and a no-contact order are some of the most common orders given by judges to help protect victims from their abusers. 

A protective order means the abuser must always stay at least 200 meters away from the victim, while a no-contact order means the abuser must not attempt to communicate with the victim through any means.

Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

Verbal abuse as a possible crime is not limited to domestic violence cases. Verbal abuse can also be used in workplace harassment, discrimination, and emotional damage lawsuits.

Angry businessman yelling into phone
Verbal abuse in the workplace can have legal implications.

An employee who is consistently and frequently verbally abused by his or her boss can file an Employment Law case. Verbal abuse in the workplace can be complicated, but filing a suit is possible under Employment Law.

An employee can file a suit if the effects of the verbal abuse are severe and excessive enough that it causes psychological distress. 

Some of the effects of the distress can include depression, anxiety, increased stress levels, sleep disorders, and health issues that include chronic headaches, insomnia, and high blood pressure. 

Suppose the employee has sought the help of a doctor or therapist and is taking medication for mental health issues because of the verbal abuse that’s happening or has happened in the workplace. In that case, he or she can be compensated for expenses or damages caused by the abuse.

Cases That Can Be Filed for Verbal Abuse in the Workplace


An employee could file a discrimination case against his or her employer or boss if the verbal abuse occurred about the following:

  • Race
  • Gender orientation
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Natural origin
Workplace discrimination
Verbal abuse may violate the Civil Rights Act.

If the name-calling, insults, harassment, and humiliation is about the mentioned characteristics of the employee, he or she can file for discrimination in the workplace within 180 days from the date of the event. 

Verbal abuse can violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which falls under federal and state laws. The employee can seek the help of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

An employee experiencing verbal abuse in the workplace can also file for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress if the verbal abuse covers the following:

  • The abuse was done intentionally or recklessly.
  • The abuse was outrageous and excessive.
  • The abuse caused emotional distress.
  • The distress the employee suffered is severe.

The complainant can be awarded the following:

Compensatory damages

A refund of all the expenses incurred if and when the complainant consulted a doctor or therapist and took medication to remedy the emotional distress caused by the abusive language. Lost wages and missed time off work can also be compensated.

Man receiving check
Victims who successfully pursue legal action for emotional distress in the workplace are generally compensated for damage caused.

Punitive damages

A monetary punishment is given to the perpetrator and paid to the victim.

Attorney fees

The abuser would need to pay for the complainant’s attorney’s fees.

A Thin Line

Verbal abuse may not be a crime in itself. Still, it can be considered psychological abuse, which falls under domestic violence if the victim and abuser are in an intimate or familial relationship. 

If verbal abuse happens in the workplace, the victim can file for discrimination or intentional infliction of emotional distress, though verbal abuse can be difficult to prove without proper documentation of the events.

This is why victims need to document the incidents, such as keeping audio or video of the verbal attack happening, keeping notes and messages, and making sure there are witnesses to the abuse happening who are willing to testify on the victim’s behalf.

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