Using the civil justice system to hold perpetrators accountable for criminal acts

Attorney David BetrasAs many of you know, I am representing Cameron Morgan, the 23-year-old woman who was punched in the face and then dragged into the street by Andrew Walls in Akron on Feb. 26. The incident garnered nationwide media attention hours after video of the racially motivated attack went viral.

Since then, Walls has admitted to being a member of the Proud Boys, an organization identified as an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and as a terrorist entity by the Canadian government. In what I can only characterize as a sad commentary on the current state of our society, Cameron and her father David, who is a Youngstown native, have been attacked by the Proud Boys and their supporters.

Despite being the targets of threats, intimidation tactics and racial slurs, Cameron and David remain resolute: Walls, along with anyone and everyone who aided and abetted him, must be held accountable for their actions.  In addition to the criminal offenses, Walls already faces the possibility that he will be charged under state and/or federal hate crime statutes — as he should be. Part of that accountability will include me keeping my promise to sue everyone who is any way responsible for the assault “into oblivion.”

Fortunately, a little-known and seldom-used provision of Ohio law empowers me to do exactly that. Section 2307.60 of the Ohio Revised Code enables “Anyone injured in person or property by a criminal act… [to] recover full damages in a civil action … ” including punitive damages, exemplary damages and attorney’s fees. For those of you who did not go to law school and are wondering: Exemplary damages are awarded when a defendant’s conduct is found to be willfully malicious, violent, oppressive, wanton or grossly reckless. Anyone who has seen the disturbing video will agree that Walls’ actions certainly check all those boxes. Here is one of the best features of the law: According to the Ohio Supreme Court decision in Buddenberg v. Weisdack, a civil cause of action for injuries based on a “criminal act” may be brought under this provision, even if the offender has not been convicted criminally.

In other words, I do not have to wait for Walls’ case to move through the criminal courts. I may sue him now — and believe me, I will. The other important thing to know about the provision is that I can also use it to sue others who may have committed criminal acts and are in some way related to the incident, even if they are never charged with or convicted of a crime. All I need to do to prevail in a civil proceeding is prove that the defendant committed a criminal offense that harmed my client.

I have in the past written about the many ways trial lawyers have made our nation and world safer by filing lawsuits that forced corporations to remove dangerous cars, drugs, medical devices and other products from the marketplace. Now, thanks to a courageous young woman and her father, I will have the opportunity to use the civil justice system to punish racism, hate and violence. The prospect makes me proud to be an attorney and a citizen of the greatest country in the world.

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