March 28, 2007

Punitive Means Punishment

I missed a chunk of Mike Moran’s show this morning on WSAR, but Maggie tells me there was a caller complaining about the inequity of the jury award in the case of Ms. Pelletier.

His specific complaint was about her compensation (the jury awarded 2.8 million) vs. what a rape victim might receive in a rape case. This same caller called up the attorney show in the afternoon yesterday. The implication was that Ms. Pelletier doesn’t deserve the money and a rape victim’s suffering is worse. This fellow wanted to blame Ms. Pelletier for her ordeal, and I guess he was upset at the size of the jury award. (Incidentally, that award may still be reduced. This has yet to completely be played out in the courts. For now, we have to assume Somerset owes 2.8 million or so.)

I’m not a lawyer, but I want to make two points I think are important.

The first, and more important point, is that most of the jury award was punitive. Punitive damages are…

not awarded in order to compensate the plaintiff, but in order to reform or deter the defendant and similar persons from pursuing a course of action such as that which damaged the plaintiff.

In other words, the jury didn’t decide that Ms. Pelletier deserved that money. They had already awarded her compensatory damages. The additional amount was to discourage this behavior in the Highway Department and to send a clear message that the people of Bristol County will not tolerate this behavior. Despite the painful fact that Somerset is now on the hook for a huge sum, I think the people of Bristol County should be proud that the system is working to protect workers by sending this message.

Ms. Pelletier should be removed from the equation when understanding the punitive award, except for the fact that she was the victim who brought this behavior to the attention of the court. The jury awarded that amount based on the degree and number of offenses. That should tell us something about how convinced they were of the wrongdoing, and how appalled they were by its severity and frequency.

But it should also send a wakeup call to other Neanderthal workplaces.

The second point I want to make relates to the “message” aspect of the punitive damage. I want to relate this to another story that callers were considering yesterday.

A man was found “not guilty” of second-degree murder in Taunton court this week. He shot a home intruder in the back as the intruder was fleeing his yard; the intruder fell into the street and died. (Story on the verdict in SouthCoastToday) (Editorial disagreeing with the verdict)

Callers to the mid-morning show yesterday said that this verdict sent a message to criminals. I’m sure it does, and to homeowners and gun owners. My point is that most of the callers, even the ones who disagreed about the verdict, agreed that the message this sent to criminals was a good thing.

If you accept that this verdict sent a good message to discourage crime, then you must accept that the punitive damages are a message of a different sort to discourage a different crime. That said, if it rankles you that Ms. Pelletier was awarded such a large sum, the only logical conclusion can be that you do not want to send a message that will fight inappropriate and intimidating behavior in the workplace.

It is not a question of whether Ms. Pelletier deserves the money. It’s a question of what kind of environment the citizens of Bristol County have a right to expect in the workplace.

Posted by James at March 28, 2007 10:09 AM
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I sent an email to Mike Moran about this, because I didn't get a chance to call in.

I wonder what sort of inequities his callers would find outrageous? Perhaps they didn't find the sexual harassment (or as one guy said, the "so-called sexual harassment") offensive enough. How about racial discrimination? (If it was their race?) Asbestos... maybe if she'd gotten lung cancer? These guys blamed her for not leaving the job, which as Mike points out, means that they think it's okay for that kind of behavior to exist on the job. The real issue is that they don't agree with the law, in which case they should take their Neaderthal asses back to 1500's Europe.

As far as the death of the intrudor, I don't think there's any evidence that it sends a message to anybody. If the death penalty isn't a deterrent to crime, and it isn't, why should the potential for a crazy gun-totin' Dirty Harry wannabee homeowner?

Posted by: Maggie at March 28, 2007 11:04 AM

The death penalty probably seems remote and abstract to the person who is committing first degree murder, who typically has a plan and expects that s/he is going to get away with it.

A person breaking into a nonvacant house, on the other hand, realizes that there's an immediate (not abstract or remote) danger of getting caught, and is mainly concerned with being able to get away quickly without being recognized. If you know that the homeowner might be able to get away with killing you even as you're running away and no longer even in the house, maybe you'll think twice.

Maybe not. I'm just saying that you probably can't compare it with the death penalty. First degree murder is also motivated differently than burglary, too, which might also make a difference in the power of a deterrent.

When I first heard about this verdict, however, my first thought was not about the message it sent to burglars. It was about the message it sends to nervous people who have guns. It doesn't have to be self-defense any more.

Posted by: Julie at March 28, 2007 12:53 PM

You're right, it's not the same thing. But I also find it hard to believe that the possibility that the homeowner may not go to jail if he shoots you is going to have a large impact on a person who is planning on breaking into a non-vacant house. Whether or not he has a gun to begin with is more relevant, since a person with a gun obviously owns it for a reason.

Posted by: Maggie at March 28, 2007 1:00 PM

You could also argue that it is going to cause more burglars to arm themselves before breaking and entering, possibly increasing the number of violent crimes.

Posted by: briwei at March 28, 2007 2:49 PM

That's scary. I'm not familiar with the particulars of this case, but I'm wondering why anybody would burgle an occupied house. Is that generally an error, an impulsive decision, a desperate decision, an intent to harm the occupants, or something else?

Posted by: Maggie at March 28, 2007 3:06 PM

I had the same thought as Brian.

In general I think people who commit crimes believe they are not going to be caught so punishment and deterrence really doesn't enter into it. Does the white collar criminal who'
s skimming a few (thousand) dollars from his company think about what's going to happen when he get's caught? maybe a little but I doubt he even know what the punishment is (say 5 years vs. 30 years) so how could the lenght be a deterrent.

On the deterrence of a hefty fine. Those types of fines seem to be excessive to me in general but they are really aimed at the lawyers, employees, and leaders of other towns/companies who do pay attention to such things.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at March 28, 2007 3:19 PM

I've got to say I think money's more of an incentive than just about anything else. I agree with you, Bob, people don't put a plan into action if they believe they're going to fail. Young people in general think they're indestructible, and an older criminal, well, if he's gotten to be an older criminal, then so far he is indestructible, so the evidence is on his side.

No businessman is going to want to risk a case like this, because he can't afford it, and no person in a position of power in a municipality is going to want to risk losing that power over a law that isn't that hard to enforce.

Posted by: Maggie at March 28, 2007 3:56 PM

People often burgle unoccupied homes because they think they are empty or that the occupants are asleep. In some cases, it's a 'no fear' thing. One of our neighbors' homes got robbed while she was in the shower. That to me is the uber scary. But she-who-must-not-be-questioned does not want to move.

Posted by: briwei at March 28, 2007 4:36 PM

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