CRIME VICTIMS’ RELIEF ACT : Civil Damages for Victims of a Defendant’s Criminal Behavior

American legal proceedings can generally be divided into two categories: civil and criminal.  Criminal cases are deemed to be brought by the "State" against an individual for crimes against society generally, and the defendant stands to lose freedom.  Civil cases arise out of common law or statutory wrongs against another.  The "wronged" individual may seek judicial relief, and the court may award monetary damages – but the defendant does not face incarceration.  The distinction in the two areas is long-standing and clear.

However, in 1998, Indiana’s legislature enacted a statute known as the Crime Victim’s Relief Act (or ACRA).  It provides additional relief for a plaintiff in a civil suit (where only monetary damages are available) who has been wronged by someone whose behavior is also considered criminal conduct.  There are several damages recoverable to a plaintiff under the Act, but the most significant are the ones for "treble damages" (up to three times your actual damages) and attorney’s fees:

IC 34-24-3-1 Offenses against property; recovery of damages, costs, and attorney's fee
If a person has an unpaid claim on a liability that is covered by IC 24-4.6-5 or suffers a pecuniary loss as a result of a violation of IC 35-43, IC 35-42-3-3, IC 35-42-3-4, or IC 35-45-9, the person may bring a civil action against the person who caused the loss for the following:

  1. An amount not to exceed three (3) times:
    1. the actual damages of the person suffering the loss, in the case of a liability that is not covered by IC 24-4.6-5; or
    2. the total pump price of the motor fuel received, in the case of a liability that is covered by IC 24-4.6-5.
  2. The costs of the action.
  3. A reasonable attorney's fee.

A recent Indiana Court of Appeals opinion (Staggs v. Buxbaum, 60 N.E.3d 238 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016)) recently instructed us on the application of the treble damages portion of this statute.  The court held that a plaintiff could not recover actual damages AND that amount multiplied times three.  Rather, three times the actual damages was the maximum, plus attorney’s fees, costs, and other minor recoveries covered at the end of the statute.  The court also confirmed the following understanding of the statute’s application:

  1. Winning the civil case alone is not enough – the court must also make an additional finding of criminal culpability to invoke treble damages;
  2. Additional damages (up to 3 times actual) is discretionary with the judge, not a mandatory entitlement;
  3. Although these additional damages are punitive in nature, the judicial standard to be applied by the judge is still simply the "preponderance of the evidence" standard rather than the "clear and convincing evidence" standard that would be required for punitive damages.
  4. A person who recovers under the CVRA may not also recovery punitive damages.

Legal representation is expensive.  Therefore, many people have assumed that even if they have been wronged by someone and could sue to recover, it would not be worth it due to the costs.  Over the years, our firm has applied the CVRA many times for our clients and recovered additional damages, including attorney’s fees.  We look for this in all cases where our client has been wronged.  The additional recoveries available may make hiring legal counsel possible in cases where it otherwise would have been cost-prohibitive.

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Thomas E. Scifres, PC-Attorney At Law
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Salem, IN 47167

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