Last year, a juvenile caused a terrible car accident in Texas which killed four people and injured several others. When he was criminally prosecuted, his lawyers presented a “affluenza” defense. They argued that their juvenile client had poor judgment and a sense of entitlement because his wealthy parents did not do enough to discipline him.
When the juvenile was sentenced to treatment and probation rather than jail time, the judge was harshly criticized. Many people felt the sentence was far too lenient. Many also felt the case was a stark example of how the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy.
People who feel that way will be happy to know that there may be some justice in the case after all. While the juvenile may have dodged a bullet on criminal charges, he (or his parents) is still facing huge claims for civil liability from the accident victims. One of those victims recently agreed to a settlement of more than $2 million. Claims from other victims may have already been settled, or may still be pending. Given the four deaths and the serious injuries suffered by others, the total liability could be in the high seven or low eight figures.
This illustrates an often-overlooked fact: when the criminal justice system fails, the civil justice system sometimes steps in to provide relief. To take another example, many people were outraged when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. They may not remember that Simpson was found liable in a later civil trial and ordered to more than $33 million in wrongful death damages. Simpson did not go to jail, but the $33 million adverse judgment ruined him financially. He was even forced to sell his Heisman trophy at an auction to pay toward that judgment.
People on Main Street are also frustrated about criminal behavior on Wall Street. Massive fraud in the mortgage markets clearly contributed to the financial collapse of 2008 and Great Recession. Main-Streeters are justifiably angry because there have been virtually no criminal prosecutions in the wake of the collapse.
They can take some comfort, however, in knowing that bad behavior in the financial industry can be pursued through civil law. Many financial institutions have already paid record fines. While fines don’t make the same moral statement as prison time, they bring at least some retribution and justice for the victims.
Because trials are public, civil cases can bring evidence of malfeasance out into the open for all to see. Public shaming is not the primary purpose of a trial, but it can be an important benefit which flows from the process.
Finally, criminal behavior can be punished through punitive damage claims. The insurance industry and large corporations complain about punitive damages, but they can be a powerful tool for ensuring that criminals do not profit from their financial crimes.
To conclude, the criminal justice system is not perfect. The civil justice system is not perfect either. But the civil system can serve as a valuable backstop when the criminal system fails to punish those who behave badly.
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