Industry News

[January 01, 2007]

Crime victims often left with no choice but to sue

(Beaumont Enterprise, The (Texas) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jan. 1--Another civil lawsuit was filed earlier this month against O.J. Simpson.

Simpson, acquitted in the 1994 slayings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her boyfriend, Ron Goldman, later was found liable for their deaths in civil court and ordered to pay $38 million in damages to his victims' families.

Now, Goldman's father is suing him for profiting from their deaths.

He claims Simpson fraudulently profited -- to the tune of about $1 million -- in a book deal presenting a fictional account of how he could have killed the pair.

Fred Goldman further complained that Simpson has yet to make good on the hefty judgment against him.

Most victims of crime must content themselves with a criminal conviction -- if they can get even that -- but when a criminal defendant is a person of means, victims have more options, legal experts say.

In Jefferson County, trials are pending in civil matters against prominent people even as criminal charges have been filed against the defendants in the cases.

Beaumont lawyer Clay Dugas has sued his office manager, Elizabeth Langston, alleging she embezzled more than $250,000 from him over the course of about eight years.

On Dec. 13, the Beaumont Police Department forwarded a case against her to the district attorney's office.

In another case, five plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against a Beaumont doctor, Jeffrey Klem; a pastor and the church to which he ministers alleging child molestation, defamation of character, negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.

The plaintiffs, who have four daughters among them, were longtime New Life Tabernacle members.

On Dec. 14, Klem was indicted on three counts of indecency with a child. The lawsuit was filed Aug. 11.

The only similarity between Dugus' and the families' cases is that both involve criminal offenses.

Last recourse?

Most criminal matters do not result in civil lawsuits, experts said.

Beaumont lawyer Tom Roebuck, board certified in both civil and criminal law, said criminals are not often sued in civil courts, primarily because it often is not practical. Much of the time, criminal defendants simply do not have the means to pay an award that would justify the effort and expense of a lawsuit.

"A civil damage claim against someone with criminal proceedings is only effective if the defendant is solvent," he said. "The whole key to this is whether or not the defendant has assets from which to collect damages."

But plaintiffs often have little other hope of relief but to head to civil court.

If the defendant is convicted in criminal court, restitution is not guaranteed. Victims can only hope to get restitution for their losses if the defendant gets probation, because restitution is exclusively ordered as a condition of probation, Roebuck said.

Even then, if the offender is unable to pay the full amount during his probationary period, once his or her supervision is over, there is no mechanism in place to compel payment.

In addition, criminal law doesn't provide for punitive or other types of damages for victims, such as mental anguish and physical injury, Roebuck said.

Because insurance usually does not cover intentionally inflicted injuries and damages -- such as those from rape, assault or murder -- victims generally have no other recourse but to sue.

Roebuck said it is unnecessary to file criminal charges to be able to pursue civil remedies, but in most cases, a criminal conviction can help establish a defendant's culpability.

"For sexual assault cases, you want criminal action to be filed," Roebuck said. "These are tragic cases. The victims are going to be going through trauma for the rest of their lives and ought to be compensated for it."

However, a lawsuit filed before the disposal of a criminal case can run into hitches.

"It can create interesting issues for lawyers seeking depositions on the civil side," Roebuck said. "(Defendants) can come in and refuse to answer because of their Fifth Amendment rights."

The Page case

A billboard on Interstate 10 in Orange County still stands sentinel to a high-profile criminal case that resulted in a sizable civil judgment against a suspect in a still-unsolved Vidor slaying.

Kathy Page was found May 14, 1991, in her still-running car, which was head first in a ditch.

The dead woman had been beaten and strangled.

Investigators identified her husband, Steve Page, as the prime suspect in the slaying, but two grand jury investigations concluded without an indictment.

Kathy Page's family, believing Steve Page killed her after she left him only two days before, brought the civil lawsuit against him.

After two mistrials, a third jury in October 1999 found in the family's favor by a margin of 11-1.

The jury awarded Kathy Page's relatives $200,000 after finding Steve Page financially liable for her death.

Kathy Page's father, who still hopes for criminal prosecution of his daughter's killer, has maintained the billboard expressing his displeasure with the investigation for years.

The Klem case

Another case pits church members against their church, pastor and another church member.

Five who used pseudonyms to protect them and their daughters from "vexatious publicity" allege that Klem, a fellow church member, sexually abused their daughters during a period of about five years beginning in 2001.

As a result of the sexual abuse, the three girls "all suffered severe emotional distress and mental anguish, causing them to engage in behaviors such as self-mutilation, and causing inability to perform schoolwork," the petition stated.

The plaintiffs further allege that the Rev. Lonnie Charles Treadway and New Life Tabernacle knew Klem was a pedophile and did nothing to protect the young girls in the congregation.

"As a result, the sexual molestation was allowed to occur and continued," the petition stated.

The petition also contains allegations that Treadway excommunicated the plaintiffs and defamed them, calling the girls "whores" and "liars" and spreading a story that one of the plaintiffs was a prostitute and a drug dealer.

The plaintiffs have suffered "extreme mental anguish, public humiliation and embarrassment" because of the libelous statements.

According to the petition, New Life Tabernacle is liable for the actions of Treadway, its agent.

The plaintiffs seek damages for past and future medical and psychiatric bills, pain and suffering, loss of earning capacity in the future and interest.

They also ask for punitive damages as the defendants "have demonstrated malice and gross negligence through their conscious indifference to the rights, health, safety and welfare of plaintiffs, their minor children and other members of the church and general public."

Klem filed a denial of all the allegations in September, as did Treadway and New Life Tabernacle.

In that filing, Beaumont lawyer Kip Lamb, New Life's defense counsel, also asked the judge to dismiss the action if the plaintiffs refused to disclose their identities.

Lamb's answer also takes exception to statements made in the original petition saying Treadway knew or should have known of Klem's activities without saying how he would have known it, "assuming (for the sake of argument) that it is true."

Not all are a way to deal with violent deaths or assaults, in some situations, the plaintiff would just like his or her money back.

The Dugas case

On July 25, Beaumont lawyer Clay Dugas filed a complaint accusing longtime office manager Elizabeth Langston of abusing a credit card issued to her to make purchases for the firm's benefit.

The petition claims Langston purchased electronic equipment such as digital cameras and laptop computers; fueled her vehicle; paid for travel and lodging on personal vacations; financed college tuition for relatives; and purchased personal clothing, shoes and swimming pool supplies.

In addition, he alleges she issued checks payable to "cash" but assigned to various accounts.

"Langston cashed those checks and kept the funds, and issued additional checks to pay the vendors or used the firm credit card," the petition alleges.

The financial discrepancies came to light in an audit in February.

In a response filed Sept. 5, Langston denied Dugas' contentions.

Her case has yet to reach a grand jury.

The Cross case

Some lawsuits involving criminal matters have the appearance of ulterior motives.

In August, Charles Cross, a transient contractor doing business in Jefferson County in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, filed a lawsuit against some of his clients.

He alleged that three women beat and robbed him after his attempts to complete the work they ordered met with contention and friction among his client, her family and friends.

He claimed the women's theft of an $11,000 check halted his progress on other jobs.

However, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office had a slightly different interpretation of Cross' activities here.

Cross now has been charged with three counts of theft from customers who hired him to repair their storm-damaged houses, Assistant District Attorney Pat Knauth said.

Cross is accused of bilking clients of more than $30,000 between February and August.

Knauth said the lawsuit was perhaps intended as a smokescreen for the alleged criminal activities catching up with him.

The civil case was dismissed with prejudice Aug. 28, as per an order signed by District Judge Milton Gunn Shuffield.

Cross has not yet been arrested.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Beaumont Enterprise, Texas
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