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Filing Civil Lawsuits Against Criminals

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Filing Civil Lawsuits Against Criminals

by Debra A. Newby

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me.  Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Dear Debra:

Every news outlet in the nation is reporting on the lax punishment (6 months in county jail) for the ex-Stanford University student who sexually abused/raped an unconscious and intoxicated woman. Can’t that brave girl do something else, like maybe file a civil lawsuit against the criminal?   

Signed…Still Seeking Justice

Dear SSJ:

Great question. The short answer is “Yes”. 

Flash back to the OJ Simpson trial. Remember the public outrage when OJ was found “not guilty” of the double murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown, and her companion, Ronald Goldman. Subsequently, the surviving family members of the murder victims filed a civil “wrongful death action” against OJ seeking economic damages. The Family prevailed and the jury awarded them $33.5 million in damages. I’m not sure if OJ ever paid the surviving family members a dime, but do recall that OJ fled to Florida to hide and protect most of his assets, as Florida (as well as Texas) have collection laws that allow the debtor to exempt most of their assets for purposes of collection on a civil judgment.  

Frankly, part of me hopes that Emily Doe, the brave and articulate victim who has given a powerful voice to every sexual assault victim, does in fact sue Brock Turner. Her 12-page statement which was directed to the rapist reveals a maturity beyond years and a pain beyond description. Read it. It can be found at buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker. I especially like how she ends her statement by giving homage to “girls everywhere” hoping that they absorb a “small knowing that you can’t be silenced...a small assurance that we are getting somewhere”. 

As an aside, in a civil action, co-defendants are also named if they have a shared responsibility in directly or indirectly contributing to the injuries caused.  For example, a potential co-defendant in a campus rape civil action may be the University where the assault occurred, if the plaintiff can prove that the school created a dangerous and hazardous environment through their action or non-action. 

The burden of proof in a civil lawsuit differs from a criminal action. In a criminal prosecution, the District Attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged. The DA in the Stanford rape case prevailed, as the jury unanimously decided that the defendant was guilty of three different felonies. In a civil lawsuit, the sexual assault victim must prove that the defendant is liable for his or her negligent acts based on the preponderance of the evidence – which is a lesser burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt. Rephrased, Emily would have to prove that more likely than not (50% plus a feather, is what I like to say) that the defendant breached a standard of care and caused injury.  

If a sexual assault victim does sue in civil court, typically economic damages are sought, which include past and estimated future medical bills related to the injury, counseling, and lost earning capacity. Non-economic damages can also be pursued, such as pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and mental anguish. 

The voices of sexual assault victims are being heard more and more frequently in courtrooms throughout our nation. I suspect that most plaintiffs in a sexual assault civil case do not file the lawsuit for the money, but perhaps for a type of symbolic closure. To perhaps encourage the perpetrator to take responsibility. To perhaps change society’s perception of a rape crime. To perhaps give a voice to a rape victim so we can understand, and perhaps change, how women are treated and valued.   

Emily Doe will have to decide whether she wants to re-live that horrific experience by filing a civil lawsuit. The doors of the civil justice system are open for her and others in similar situations.

Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 34 years. She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email (debra@newbylawoffice.com), phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202).