Many have by now heard of the unsettling news of a Texas judge who chose to only sentence 16 year old Ethan Couch to probation after he drove drunk and killed 4 people, paralyzed another and hurt still more. The Texas Attorney General has announced there is nothing they can do to correct the sentence which could have sent Couch away for a 20 year sentence with at least 2 years before parole eligibility. The families of the victims have now filed wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits, seeking to have the civil justice system strip the family of the wealth to provide punishment where the criminal system failed.
Although the sentence would be considered light in any courtroom given that in Georgia, DUI manslaughter defendants regularly get 3-8 years in jail, the source of much of the outcry is the defense strategy. The Defendant is wealthy and hired a psychologist to present a defense based on “affluenza.” This is a conjured condition not found in any medical text that argues that the boy’s parents so neglected him that he should not be as criminally culpable as any other teen. Many in the public suspect that had the teen been poor, he would be behind bars.
The raw facts are these:
1. Couch had a blood alcohol level of .24, three times the legal limit and had taken Valium.
2. He was going 70 in a 40mph zone in an F-350 owned by Cleburne Metal Works, his father’s company.
3. He lost control and struck and killed 4 people on the side of the road, including Samaritans who had stopped to help change a tire.
4. He had 7 teens packed into the truck and one was paralyzed as a result of the crash.
This crash is hellish on many levels but is brought into focus given that Marla Mitchell was talking to her daughter, Breanna, on the phone when Breanna died. The cases raises a number of moral and legal issues which we will explore.
The Confusing Distinction between Juvenile and Adult Punishment.
Our law has a hard time with remaining uniform in deciding how we will punish teenagers. We all agree that at 18, teens are legally adults and can vote, sue and be sued. Below 18 or 17, the law considers them minors with less mental and moral capacity than adults. They cannot enter into legally binding contracts and cannot be punished as adults, except in certain circumstances.
We frequently hear of juveniles being prosecuted as adults for murder but a DUI manslaughter is different. Our system is built around the idea of criminal intent. Although we can all agree, this teen’s behavior is disgusting and callous, he did not intentionally hurt and kill these people. He just did not care enough not to drink and drive. He absolutely deserved jail time but the reality is he probably would have been released at 18 because of his age.
How Does the Civil Wrongful Death and Injury System work with the Criminal System?
The criminal justice system is separate and distinct from the civil system. The criminal system is run by governments and punishes criminal behavior with fines, probation and imprisonment. There are serious impediments to prosecution including the presumption of innocence standard.
In the civil system, it is easier to prove wrongdoing but the only punishment is money damages. In the Couch case that is exactly what is needed. The family has allegedly spoiled the teen past the point of reason. He had his own house! The family spent lavishly on the defense of the case and there are reports he is doing rehab in an extremely expensive facility. Think about this. If his defense is that he is spoiled and cannot tell the difference between right and wrong or understand consequences, then why would his punishment be the avoidance of consequences through the protection of money. He needs to be stripped of his parent’s money.
Should the Sins of the Son be Visited upon the Father?
We all agree the son should be punished; but what about the parents? In most cases parents do their best and in Georgia, parents are legally liable for the driving of their children in only two circumstances; a) the vehicle the child drove is provided and controlled by the parents so liability arises under an agency theory (the family purpose doctrine) and b) if the child has a history of reckless driving and the parent entrusts the car to them. (negligent entrustment theory)
In this case, the Father foolishly gave the son a commercial grade company vehicle. Not only is the father legally liable, but the company is as well. Is that fair? Absolutely. This parent literally gave the keys to his own ruin away. The punishment will be the loss of the corporation and the wealth. The family cannot complain when the defense was “he is too wealthy and neglected by his parents.” The guilty will be punished in the civil suits for the deaths of 4 innocents and the paralysis of his passenger.