Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An interesting article was published in the Peoria Journal Star today.  It seems a freshman student at Knox College was murdered in 1998.  The killer was a fellow student who was convicted of the crime and sentenced to sixty years in jail.  The family sued the college for wrongful death.  They sued the college, of course, because the college has much more money (deep pockets) than does the convicted killer.  The killer will not likely have much additional money over the next sixty years.

It was claimed in the law suit that the stairway where the student was murdered had inadequate lighting and the college also did not provide adequate security.  The jury found that the college was partially responsible.  The jury awarded the parents of the student “$150,000 for the emotional stress suffered by the woman before she died, $150,000 for her pain and suffering….” (5/23/06, page B1)  The jury also awarded the family $750,000 for the loss they suffered because of her untimely death.  The lawyer who handled the case is quoted as saying “The money was always secondary.” (5/23/06, page B1)

Really?  If that is true, why did the family file the law suit?  Did they file the law suit so that Knox College would improve the lighting in the area and provide more security to prevent a similar tragedy in the future?  If that is why, it is commendable!  However, if that is why they filed the suit, the verdict did nothing to insure that would happen.

The verdict provided a lot of money to the law firm who handled the case.  I don’t know the practice in Illinois; but in Arizona the law firm would probably receive at least 1/3 of the awarded money.  Obviously, the murdered victim does not actually receive any money for her emotional stress and for her pain and suffering.  Who can put a price on the family’s loss and who can guarantee that the woman would not have died the next day from an automobile accident?  “What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4: 14B)

The present system punishes the college financially for previous “negligent” behavior.  However, nothing in the ruling insures that future behavior of the college will improve or be changed.

If, indeed, the money is secondary; I would propose the following changes in the present system.

The family should be made whole.  They should recover the costs associated with sending the student to the college, the cost of the funeral, and any other tangible costs associated with her murder.  The lawyer (law firm) should receive reasonable compensation for his legal work.  For example, if the going rate for legal work is $200 an hour, compensation for work actually done by the lawyer(s) should be at that rate.  (The lawyer should be paid by the court not the family filing the case.  At the present time, the family normally pays taxes on the money received and then paid to the lawyer.  The family can then deduction that payment to the lawyer as a miscellaneous deduction.)   All other expenses incurred should be based upon the actual costs.  For example, if twenty hours of secretarial work was done and the secretary is paid $20.00 an hour; then that portion of the compensation should be four hundred dollars.  

Finally, a new legal category should be added to this type of law suit (when the victim can not possibly actually collect) replacing emotional stress suffered by the victim, pain and suffering by the victim, and loss suffered by the family.  (No jury is really qualified to determine these items and the Constitution, as far as I can tell, does not require these categories nor does it require juries to make these determinations.)  The new category is “betterment damages.”  The responsible party (the college in this case) would be required to make necessary improvements to help prevent a similar tragedy in the future.  In the case of Knox College, improved security and lighting throughout the campus could be part of the judgment by the court.

For example, the court in a procedure established by law (not the jury) could determine that $200,000 must be spent in a prudent manner to improve lighting throughout the school.  The court might also order that $800,000 over a ten year period be spent for more security personnel.  

If the decision of the court is not obeyed, the college president would be jailed for contempt of court for six months.  If the order of the court is still not obeyed, increase the jail time.  I believe it is reasonable to expect that any college president would obey the order of the court rather than spend time in jail.  He almost certainly would after the first six months.

I believe one consequence of this includes the probability that perceived frivolous law suits would be curtailed.  Naturally, the lawyers will not like it and I’m certainly they will attempt to point out unintended consequences of such a law.  Good!  One purpose of a democracy is to openly debate the issues of the day.  So, let’s begin the debate.  We just might be able to come up with a better system than we now have for this type of law suit.

Do we need to make changes?  Will this proposal or something similar to it help to promote a safer environment in the future?
Will this proposal put the costs for that safer environment on the group that should bare the cost?  

Debate it?  Try it?  Improve the system?
© May 23, 2006


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