The Affluenza Defense: When Negligent Parties Escape Justice

The 2013 trial of wealthy Texas teen Ethan Couch led many in the legal community to question whether the nation’s rich are held to the same standards as its working class in criminal matters. It also led to discussions of what to do in those cases where a negligent party escapes justice in a criminal trial and sentencing.

Entitled to Behave Recklessly: The Story Behind “Affluenza Defense”

During trial, Couch, 16, admitted to stealing beer and getting drunk before getting behind the wheel of a pickup truck in June 2013. Couch then admitted to steering his truck into a disabled vehicle parked on the side of the road, causing the deaths of four innocent people. The crash also caused serious injuries to two teen passengers riding in the bed of Couch’s pickup truck.

Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter by intoxication and two counts of assault by intoxication causing bodily injury. The crimes typically carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, plus thousands of dollars in fines.

The key aspect of Couch’s defense lay with his attorney’s assertion that Couch’s wealthy upbringing made it impossible for him to distinguish right from wrong. A psychologist for the defense used the term “affluenza” to describe Couch’s inability to hold himself accountable for his actions and an overwhelming sense of entitlement.

State District Judge Jean Boyd went along with the argument and opted to sentence Couch to 10 years of probation for the four manslaughter charges. He received no jail time. On February 5, Judge Boyd denied prosecutors’ request to imprison the teen up to 20 years for the severe injuries suffered by two of the seven teenaged passengers in the pickup truck.

Media and public opinion has been critical of the decision, questioning the ethics of allowing a person to get away with a crime simply because of his affluence and privilege. Critics even launched an online petition calling on Texas Gov. Rick Perry to remove Judge Boyd from the bench.

Solutions for When a Negligent Party Evades Criminal Penalty

Victims’ advocates and injury attorneys have expressed concern about the trial establishing precedence for similar cases in the future. It also has led to discussions of a victim’s options in the face of injustice in the criminal court system.

David Bressman, a Columbus personal injury attorney, acknowledges the frustrations associated with the Couch case. He said victims’ families do have other options to pursue justice.

“Although, in general, victims have little input on criminal sentencing beyond victim impact statements, the family can still pursue justice by filing a civil action for monetary damages against a driver,” David said.

“While money will never make up for the harms and losses suffered, it can provide some peace of mind as these families struggle to cope with their immeasurable grief.”

Indeed, five separate lawsuits have been filed against Couch, his father, Fred Couch, and against Cleburne Metal Works – Fred Couch’s company, which owns the pickup truck Couch was driving at the time of the crash. The victims’ survivors, including spouses and parents, initiated the lawsuits. Parents of the injured teens also are pursuing financial recovery.

Legal Help in the Columbus Area

If you’re suffered personal injury or lost a loved one due to another’s reckless or negligent actions, talk to David Bressman about your options for recovery. Set up your consultation by calling 877-538-1116 or contact us online.