A Primer

Statistics show that more than 23 million Americans are annually victimized by crime. The consequences of crime often extend beyond the criminal act. These same statistics estimate that the cost of crime in America totals nearly half a trillion dollars per year. Crime victims often suffer out of pocket losses such as lost wages and medical and counseling expenses. Unfortunately, many of the victims lack financial resources to cover these expenses.

The criminal justice system can provide some measure of compensation for crime victims but that justice is far from complete. Restitution as part of a criminal sentence can be imposed but is only as collectible as the defendant’s resources. Florida and other states have crime compensation trust funds but available compensation is capped. Moreover, the criminal justice system does not provide compensation for mental anguish or physical pain and suffering.

The civil justice system can often provide more complete justice for crime victims. While the criminal justice system is concerned with the guilt or innocence of the defendant the civil justice system determines the liability both of the perpetrator and third parties whose actions or inactions contributed to the crime. Damages in civil actions can include an award for anguish and pain and suffering and economic losses are not capped. The burden of proof in civil cases is also substantially lower than in criminal cases.

In a civil action to recover damages against the perpetrator and third parties plaintiff’s counsel may have several legal claims available. Typical claims against the perpetrator in scenarios involving violent acts or sexual abuse can include assault and battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The claims available against third parties will vary with the type of defendant. For instance, claims against a business that employed the perpetrator could include negligent hiring and retention and, in some instances, could include vicarious liability for the perpetrator’s intentional acts. Claims against landowners can be stated in some instances where the defendant knew or should have known of violent crime taking place on or near the property but failed to take preventative measures such as placement of adequate lighting or instituting security measures. Governmental defendants such as schools may also be liable for acts of violence or sexual abuse that could have been prevented.

Civil actions for recovery of compensation on behalf of crime victims are usually not “easy”. Defendants in these cases have a number of defenses available. For instance, the statute of limitations is often raised (although some states like Florida have modified the statute of limitations in sex abuse cases). Consent is sometimes raised. Other technical defenses also may be available and the collectability of any ultimate judgment must also be considered. Nonetheless, in appropriate cases, a civil action can be the vehicle to recover a full range of compensation including out of pocket losses, compensation for anguish and pain and suffering and in aggravated cases even punitive damages.