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Chandra Law wins Ohio Supreme Court victory for crime victims: civil damages can be recovered for criminal acts

Today, the Ohio Supreme Court held in favor of Chandra Law Firm client Jessica Jacobson and confirmed that an Ohio statute, R.C. 2307.60(A)(1) "Civil Action for Damages for Criminal Act," creates an independent cause of action for crime victims to recover full damages in civil actions against perpetrators. Jacobson v. Kaforey, Slip. Op. No. 2016-Ohio-8434. The Court's affirmation of an "independent" cause of action means that crime victims will no longer have to scour the law for statutes or cases authorizing recovery for the specific crime by which they were victimized.

In 2012, Ms. Jacobson filed suit against the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital for Rehabilitation, Akron Children's Hospital, and an attorney and registered nurse named Ellen Kaforey. The complaint alleged that, in 2001, when Ms. Jacobson was seven years old, the hospital defendants "kept and harbored [her] out of the reach of and access by [her] mother by threat of physical force." The defendants instead improperly released Ms. Jacobson to Kaforey's custody, according to the complaint, and together with Kaforey arranged to have her transported, without her or her mother's consent, to Florida, where she remained for more than a month. These actions, the complaint asserted, constituted the crimes of unlawful restraint, kidnapping, and child enticement.

The trial court dismissed Ms. Jacobson's claims, concluding that "civil actions for damages may not be predicated upon alleged violation of a criminal statute." But on appeal, the Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statute does indeed independently authorize a civil action for damages caused by criminal acts.

Because the Ninth District's holding conflicted with decisions from the Third, Fifth, and Tenth Districts, the defendants turned to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to resolve the conflict.

R.C. 2307.60(A)(1) provides in relevant part that "[a]nyone injured in person or property by a criminal act has, and may recover full damages in, a civil action unless specifically excepted by law." On its face, the statute grants crime victims the right to sue their perpetrators―unless such an action is elsewhere prohibited.

Despite the statute's apparently plain language, however, a bevy of Ohio courts had previously ruled, in effect, that you can't believe what you read. R.C. 2307.60(A)(1), these courts said, merely "codifies the common-law principle that a civil action does not merge into a criminal prosecution." Other courts expressed concern that, construed as written, the statute would purport to authorize private citizens to initiate criminal prosecutions―the exclusive franchise of the state. Still other courts bemoaned the "open-ended" or "duplicative" liability the statute would purportedly create if construed as an additional, independent source of civil actions.

Advocating a plain-language analysis of R.C. 2307.60, Chandra Law Firm partner Donald Screen successfully defended the Ninth District Court of Appeals' decision. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the defendants' arguments (and the holdings of at least three state appellate courts) in ruling for Ms. Jacobson: "By its plain and unambiguous language, R.C. 2307.60 creates a civil cause of action for damages resulting from any criminal act, unless otherwise prohibited by law."

Today's holding means that crime victims are entitled to receive more than just the satisfaction of seeing criminals arrested and prosecuted; assuming they can prove injury, the victims are entitled to actual money damages. The ruling will prove to be of substantial benefit to victims of crimes for which Ohio law does not provide specific civil redress. And indeed, crime victims may use the civil-liability statute even where prosecutors or grand juries choose not to prosecute the perpetrators.

Chandra Law has had considerable experience pursuing (and sometimes defending) cases involving R.C. 2307.60. 

The decision is linked here: 2016-12-28 Jacobson v. Kaforey, et al. 2016-Ohio-8434.pdf.
 

The Supreme Court's own summary is linked here.
 

Don Screen's oral argument in the case is linked here.

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