Can a California Accident Victim Recover Criminal Restitution and a Civil Judgment from a Personal Injury Lawsuit? The California Court of Appeals Says "Yes".
There are cases where an injured person may pursue restitution through the civil justice system against a defendant who has already been cruelly prosecuted and convicted for the harm that forms the basis for the civil action. In these cases the injured person may also see criminal restitution to compensate for their injuries.
Often, the criminal court will enter an award of restitution against the defendant pursuant to California Penal Code section 1202.4. When this happens, may an injured person file a civil suit against the same defendants who has been ordered to pay restitution in the criminal court and receive compensation in a civil court?
The answer is: yes.
In the recent case of Vigilant Insurance Company v. Chiu (2009), 175 Cal. App. 4th 438. In that case, Mr. Chiu tried to reverse a civil judgment against him of nearly $500,000. Mr. Chiu argued that since a criminal court had previously found him guilty of grand theft and ordered him to pay $615,000 in restitution, the plaintiff, Vigilant Insurance Company, already had a valid judgment against him and could not enter a second judgment based upon the same facts in civil court.
The appellate court disagreed upholding the civil damages judgment against Mr. Chiu. The court stated that the issue in front of it was, "does an order of restitution under Section 1202.4 in favor of a victim of a crime preclude the victim... from pursuing a separate civil action a stunned the same facts from which the criminal conviction arose?" The court ruled, "no".
Proposition 8, which includes Section 1202.4, is entitled the "Victim's Bill of Rights". The Proposition added a section to the California Constitution stating that "all persons who suffer losses as a result of criminal activity shall have the right to seek and secure restitution from the persons convicted of the crimes causing the losses they suffered."
Section 1202.4 states: "It is the intent of the Legislature that a victim of a crime who incurs any economic loss as a result of the commission of a crime shall receive restitution directly from any defendant convicted of that crime." Complete restitution for the victim's economic loss is required by the statute unless the court finds "compelling and extraordinary reasons for not doing so." To better enable crime victims to collect restitution, the Legislature added a section in 1996 which states "A restitution order imposed pursuant to subdivision (f) shall be enforceable as if the order were a civil judgment."
In reading Section 1202.4, the court in Chiu held that the Legislature had a clear intent to allow the victim of a crime to pursue a separate civil remedy regardless of the restitution order in a criminal court.
One of Mr. Chiu's arguments was that the ability of the plaintiff to obtain a criminal restitution order and a civil judgment allows the plaintiff to recover the same sums of money twice. However, the appellate court rejected that claim as incorrect. The court held, to the extent there is any duplication in the amounts ordered for restitution in the criminal case and a judgment in a subsequent civil action, that Section 1202.4(j) provides a set off for those amounts. Subsection (j) states: "... Restitution collected pursuant to this subdivision shall be credited to any other judgments for the same losses obtained against the defendant arising out of the crime for which the defendant was convicted." This subsection prevents the possibility of double recovery through criminal restitution and a civil action. Accordingly, the court in Chiu held that Mr. Chiu's obligation to reimburse Vigilant for his theft would credit criminal restitution order for every dollar paid pursuant to the civil judgment.
What does this case mean for lawyers and personal injury victims? For the lawyers, it means that when discussing a possible civil case with a injured person victimized by crime, lawyers should make sure the injured person pursues a criminal restitution avenue as well as every viable civil remedy. This is particularly true when a civil remedy may not provide much in the way of compensation for the injured person due to cost of litigation problems, liability issues, judgment proof defendants, or any other number of factors. In those cases, the criminal restitution mechanism can provide the injured person with a method to recover at least some of the damages it suffered.
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