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The Top 10 Civil Justice Stories of 2015, Part 2: The Fab Five

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Alright folks, here are the top-five civil justice stories for calendar year 2015. If you disagree with the rankings, let us know in the comments section below. Let us know if we missed any other stories that you think should have made the cut.

  1. Freddie Gray’s Family Receives $6.4 Million Police Brutality Settlement

Why It’s Big

During a two-year span of increased attention to police brutality and racial profiling, few cases drew quicker criminal charges than the incident in which Freddie Gray died following an alleged “rough ride” through Baltimore, Maryland. Gray succumbed to head and neck injuries on April 16, 2015 and six members of Baltimore’s police force were charged with offenses ranging from negligent homicide to assault. The city offered Gray’s family $6.4 million in early September, reportedly in hopes of avoiding civil court proceedings that would bring to light questionable law enforcement action and inaction leading to Gray’s death.

What Did We Learn?

The Baltimore Sun newspaper reported on September 28 that the settlement for Gray’s family constituted just the latest of more than 100 out-of-court agreements reached with victims of police brutality in the city since 2011. Excluding the money offered to Gray’s survivors, Baltimore’s government has paid more than $7 million to individuals abused by law enforcement officials. Similar trends have come to light in other U.S. cities such as Chicago, where Laquan McDonald’s family received a $5 million settlement predicated on no admission of guilt by city and police officials. While compensation for police brutality victims is justified and welcome, we have a long way to go to ensure that criminal suspects receive proper treatment free of racial profiling, and that all instances of excessive police violence receive public attention.

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  1. Bipartisan Support Stopped Bigger Trucks From Inundating U.S. Highways

Why It’s Big

At this point, any Republicans and Democrats who work together is big news. Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stripped the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of a provision to compel all states to allow “twin-33s” which are massive tractor-trailers even heavier and longer than the 18-wheelers currently on roads and highways. Resistance to the twin-33 provision came from a broad coalition of lawmakers and safety advocates. The damage such large and heavy trucks could inflict on fellow drivers operating much smaller vehicles was cited as a reason to remove the provision.

What Did We Learn?

Safety is still valued, even when $305 billion in federal transportation funding is at stake. Blocking the twin-33 provision could have delayed passage of the highway bill until some time in 2016. Since authorization for federal spending was set to expire completely, standing up for drivers’ lives came at a potentially high price.

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  1.  GM Fined $900 Million for Faulty Ignition Switches Linked to 120 Deaths

 

Why It’s Big

Faulty ignition switches are linked to at least 124 fatal crashes and 273 injuries. Family members of deceased victims and injured people could file to accept civil payments from a central fund beginning last year, an option that became practically mandatory since GM’s 2008 bankruptcy makes bringing lawsuits exceedingly difficult. The 2015 GM criminal settlement names no corporate executives as being liable for violating federal laws.  So much for accountability.

What Did We Learn?

The fine proves companies that ignore or hide safety problems in the name of saving money can eventually be made to pay for their corporate callousness. Regrettably, such after-the-fact accountability does little to discourage malfeasance, assign personal responsibility, prompt strict oversight or prevent injuries and deaths.

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  1. Volkswagen Games Diesel Engine Emission Testing

Why It’s Big

This was unabashed deceitful behavior by the German carmaker. The company developed a computer code that allowed as many as 11 million of its diesel engines to transmit false information to emissions-testing devices. Cheating on the tests ensured that untold amounts of greenhouse gases and harmful particulates were pumped into the atmosphere from vehicles the company promoted as environmentally responsible alternatives to older gasoline-burning cars and SUVs.  The entire plan was designed to conceal true emissions results.

Admitting to the deception led to significant financial losses for VW, the resignation of CEO Martin Winterkorn and the opening of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Owners of vehicles using the altered engines have been offered cash and free repairs. Consumer protection lawyers have uniformly advised against accepting either until liability issues and rights to compensation for fraud become clearer. A vehicle known to contain a rigged engine may fail a state inspection and be ordered off the road, leaving an owner who took the offer from VW without recourse to sue for vehicle replacement value.

What Did We Learn?

“Everybody lies” was a cliché long before the lead character of House M.D. spouted it as his diagnostic philosophy. Still, learning that a company like Volkswagen would work to circumvent environmental regulations while simultaneously building marketing campaigns around its nonexistent green credentials cannot help but shock. “Trust no one” is not much of a lesson, but it does move to the head of the class of things to understand in the wake of this VW scandal.

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  1. Big Banks Fined a Combined $5.6 Billion for Manipulating ForEx Currency Rates

Why It’s Big

No high-ranking financial executive has gone to jail, but a massive, multi-billion dollar fine is a decent consolation prize. Guilty pleas from major international financial institutions to charges of currency price manipulation opened the door to civil lawsuits in favor of plaintiffs who believe they were intentionally misled on the wisdom and profitability of transactions. Regulators in the United States and the United Kingdom in May 2015 accepted pleas for foreign exchange benchmark rigging from Bank of America, Barclays PLC, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Royal Bank of Scotland PLC and UBS AG. Those banks, with the exception of UBS, also pled to conspiring to artificially raise and lower the prices for dollars and euros.  Yes, that is correct: “rigging.”

What Did We Learn?

Admissions of deliberate cheating are rare in the world of high finance. While guilty pleas cannot be presented as evidence in civil trials, information and testimony collected in the course of criminal investigations can be used by plaintiffs’ attorneys in civil cases. Also, since foreign exchange trading involves real people’s money in the form of pension funds, 401(k)s and the like, the civil liability for the banks could be huge.

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