Charlottesville Verdicts Say “Sue The Bastards/Rioters”; Other Victims of Unpunished Rioters Should Follow This Lead
Jury Hands Down Verdict On Charlottesville Riots
WASHINGTON, D.C. (November 23, 2021) – A jury has just handed down multi-million dollar verdicts, including punitive damages, against 12 individuals and several organizations it found were responsible for the riots in Charlottesville in 2017.
This should further encourage – and perhaps even help to provide a blueprint for – victims of many other riots over the past several years to bring civil suits to recover for the damages they suffered, and to deter further criminal actions, especially in situations where known participants in riots were able to walk away without paying for any of the damages they caused, or spending any time in jail, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.
These new verdicts come on the heels of several civil lawsuits which were filed against former President Donald Trump and some of his allies for harm caused by the January 6th riots, but now a major new civil lawsuit targeting some of those who actually engaged in the criminal activities has finally been filed.
The suit, filed by seven Capital Police officers, and which named as defendants individual members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, came as D.C. judges are expressing frustration about alleged leniency in the criminal cases of those who actually participated in the riot.
This is a good sign, and may encourage other civil legal actions where – as has been proven in case after case and in many cities where protestors engaged in destructive conduct – the criminal law isn’t working to deter such criminal conduct, nor to make the perpetrators pay for the harm they caused, says Banzhaf, who has been proposing and developing tactics for such lawsuits.
Three other similar riot lawsuits have been filed against Trump, but this appears to be the first, and apparently the most important, to target the actual criminal rioters, and not just those who allegedly inspired the riots, argues Banzhaf.
The Trump Train
As another example, consider that victims of a criminal political protest – when Trump supporters allegedly harassed and tried to force their campaign bus off the road – have sued several members of the caravan (called the “Trump Train”) in a civil law suit; accusing them of violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which bars violent election intimidation, as well as local Texas laws.
As predicted and encouraged by Professor Banzhaf, whose complaints triggered two separate criminal investigations of Donald Trump in Georgia, this was only the latest is a growing number of law suits using civil actions to obtain some redress, and hopefully to also deter future unlawful actions, by those who engage in criminal conduct to advance a political purpose or goal.
Banzhaf notes that, in addition to the KKK act, there are numerous grounds under existing law which would probably apply to this and many other situations in which political activities extend far beyond protected free speech and involve clear violations of criminal law, often against innocent and uninvolved third parties.
In another recent legal action likewise using the KKK act, Representative Bennie Thompson filed a civil lawsuit against Trump, as well as against his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, notes Banzhaf, who has urged victims of unlawful criminal protests – whether by or against Trump supporters, protests against alleged police misconduct, etc. – to use civil law and civil lawsuits since the criminal law is too often ineffective in deterring such unlawful conduct.
Here are few examples where others have followed the route he has suggested.
Street Violence In New York City
In New York City, victims of street violence are in fact beginning to sue those whose criminal conduct caused injury, with one law suit already filed, one by a civilian broadcaster being weighed, and several more promised.
A New York City police detective has filed a civil tort suit seeking monetary damages against an alleged rioter for physical injuries he alleges he suffered during widespread looting.
A broadcaster discussed on his TV program. with Professor Banzhaf as his guest, his hopes of suing the criminals who damaged his studio during the New York City rioting.
The president of the New York City Detectives’ Endowment Association, which represents some 19,000 current and former detectives, has vowed to sue any protestor, rioter, or looter who attacked its members.
And a civil law suit inspired by Banzhaf against those who unlawfully blocked the George Washington Bridge, effectively imprisoning thousands in their cars, and allegedly leading to a death when an ambulance was delayed, is ongoing.
One journalist has now brought a civil law suit, and another has publicly discussed bringing such an action, says Banzhaf, who has been urging adding civil law suits, and especially class actions, to the weapons against those who engage in criminal conduct to make a point. Banzhaf was recently called “a king of class action lawsuits.”
Journalist Andy Ngo has filed a law suit against rioters and others who physically beat him while he was covering a protest which turned into a riot. The law suit, filed in Oregon’s Multnomah County, includes claims of assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and Oregon’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act.
More recently, journalist John Tabacco discussed, on his program “Liquid Lunch,” how he is considering bringing a law suit for damages his TV studio suffered as a result of the recent riots. Banzhaf, who was his on-air guest on the program, explained the advantages of a civil law suit, and how Tabacco might go about bringing it.
Criminal Protest Actions Continue To Proliferate
Banzhaf notes that criminal protest actions have continued to proliferate, despite increased law enforcement presence, curfews, and pious pronouncements, and many of the victims of this criminal conduct are members of minority groups whose places of business – often uninsured – were damaged or even destroyed.
But just because government has so far proven ineffective in protecting them, the innocent victims are not without some remedy, notes Banzhaf, who is known for advocating and using legal action as a tool for fighting wrongdoing and achieving social justice.
For example, he and his law students successfully sued former vice president Spiro Agnew to force him to disgorge – with interest – the money he received in illegal bribes.
Although arrests (with little threat of significant jail time) and small fines have generally be ineffective from discouraging those seeking to draw attention to causes by going far beyond their First Amendment rights to protest, and instead engaging in serious crimes against the public welfare and against completely innocent third parties, a major civil class action lawsuit for all the damages suffered by the hundreds of people adversely affected is much more likely to deter them from engaging in such crimes in the future, suggests Banzhaf.
The law professor notes that, under the legal doctrine of “joint and several liability,” any one person or business injured or damaged as a result of criminal rioting can sue any one or more of the criminals (called joint tort feasors) who actively engaged in criminally destructive and unlawful behavior for the total of all the damages caused, even if it is impossible to identify with specificity which criminal caused each specific instance of damage.
If the threat of arrests and possible fines for rioters who commit serious crimes which endanger or harm others isn’t enough to deter them from engaging in criminal trespass, destruction of property, arson, looting, obstruction of traffic, destructive vandalism, and even physical attacks, perhaps it’s time for a new remedy – civil law suits by one or more victims of such crimes, where the standard of proof needed to win is much lower than in a criminal trial – says Banzhaf.
The idea of using class action law suits to punish criminal activities and deter such illegal wrongdoing is neither new nor strictly academic, notes Banzhaf.
For example, at least one law suit inspired by Banzhaf was brought on behalf of drivers effectively imprisoned (the tort of false imprisonment) by illegal blockages of the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Indeed, now that the Supreme Court vacated the criminal sentences of two major conspirators, this civil action may be the only hope of bringing justice to the victims, and of deterring such unlawful action for the future.
Banzhaf notes that civil law suits against those who commit criminal riots in concert with others – even those actions far less serious and less harmful than burning buildings and assaulting police or even blocking traffic – to try to advance their cause have also been successful in a number of notable instances.
For example, as early as 1988, a federal jury found two white supremacist groups – the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern White Knights – and 11 people responsible for the violent disruption of a 1987 civil rights march in Forsyth County, Ga., and awarded nearly $1 million in damages to the plaintiffs who filed the suit.
When other groups learn that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been forced to pay $2.55 million to Japanese companies for illegally using acid and smoke bombs to disrupt their whaling, they may think twice before blocking traffic or occupying buildings – much less engaging in widespread destruction – to advance their agenda, says Banzhaf, who has promoted the idea – and the very slogan – of “Suing the Bastards” when the law is broken.
In another example, a student who illegally chained himself to some construction equipment because he opposed an oil pipeline was forced to pay out big bucks for his criminal conduct. As NPR reported it, he was apparently ready to accept a relatively painless conviction for trespass, but not to pay the pipeline company $39,000 in restitution.
Similarly, eleven protesters who allegedly engaged in illegal activities at the Mall of American faced restitution claims from the City of Bloomington.
In these and many similar situations, criminal protesters are often willing to accept a small fine for a chance to focus attention on their cause, especially if it means they get to have a criminal trial which can generate even more publicity for them and for their grievance, argues Banzhaf.
In contrast, a civil law suit, in which each and every participant in the criminal riot can be sued for the entire amount of the damages suffered by all victims under the legal principle of “joint and several liability,” might serve as a much more effective deterrent than the minor threat of arrests and possible criminal prosecution, suggests Banzhaf.
While everyone has a constitutional right to protest in public, that right clearly does not extend to engaging in serious crimes to draw attention to a cause or grievance, no matter how important or righteous that cause may seem.
As illegal criminal riots by various groups – including the riot in Charlottesville – continue to proliferate, causing serious harm to governmental bodies as well as to innocent third parties, those harmed may no longer be helpless, even when police refuse to take appropriate action and/or prosecutors decline to prosecute, and even when the individuals who actually caused specific harms cannot be conclusively identified, says Banzhaf.
Banzhaf, famous for developing novel winning law suits – including over $12 million from McDonald’s over its french fries, and against Spiro Agnew to recover the money he took in bribes – has been called “a Driving Force Behind the Lawsuits That Have Cost Tobacco Companies Billions of Dollars,” “The Law Professor Who Masterminded Litigation Against the Tobacco Industry,” and an “Entrepreneur of Litigation, [and] a Trial Lawyer’s Trial Lawyer.”