Ethan Couch’s “affluenza” argument that helped sway a judge to give the Texas teen probation instead of a prison sentence may also be a factor in the civil case against the 16-year-old who killed four people and injured nine others.
The argument, given by Couch’s lawyers during sentencing in his manslaughter case, claimed that he came from wealthy parents who never disciplined him for reckless behavior in the past, leading the teen never to learn the consequences of his actions. Dr. G. Dick Miller, a psychologist testifying for Couch, said the teen suffered from “affluenza,” and cited an incident when the boy, then 14, was found by police in a parked pickup truck with a naked girl. He was ticketed but went unpunished.
The discussion over “affluenza” has confused (and outraged) those who believed Couch used the term as a defense when in fact it was part of the argument in his sentencing.
“Affluenza may be a term that would catch the ear of the particular judge, but that’s not the real defense,” Arnold Loewy, the George Killiam professor of criminal law at Texas Tech Law School, told International Business Times.
Can the victims’ families, when they sue Couch in civil court for monetary damages, bring up “bad parenting” in their case? While they certainly can, the strategy may not be effective, according to Baylor Law School Professor Jim Underwood.
While the “bad parenting” argument “would probably fail,” according to Underwood, the victims’ families have a stronger case in arguing other types of negligence.
“The last thing we want is juries [deciding] over parenting issues,” Underwood told IBTimes, especially given the vast diversity of opinions over exactly what constitutes bad parenting.
Couch was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years’ probation by a juvenile court judge. Prosecutors were seeking a 20-year prison term -- the maximum -- for Couch in the June 15 accident that killed four people and injured nine others, including one victim who is in a coma.
A number of civil suits also have been filed against Couch in connection with the deaths. The Fort Worth sheet metal manufacturing company owned by the teen’s father, Fred Couch, is also named in the suits because Couch was driving a vehicle owned by the firm.
“Both dad and the company face [legal] exposure here, not for bad parenting but for what would be called negligent entrustment,” Underwood said, referring to the possibility that the company allowed the youth to use the truck.
“This is a huge case,” the law professor said. “I think the criminal case is just the beginning.”
Loewy said establishing whether Couch’s parents gave him use of the vehicle and if he had a history with alcohol will be key to the case.
“The harder question is, ‘Were his parents negligent in giving him a car knowing his propensity to drink?” Loewy said. If such facts are established during the civil trial, Couch’s parents could be “hit up for major damages,” according to the professor.
While news of Couch’s sentence shocked Americans following the case, most legal experts who spoke to IBTimes said probation in such a case is not a shocking punishment, given that he is a juvenile and did not intentionally mean to kill.
“I can imagine that people would be shocked because we expect very adjudicative sanctions,” said Sandra Thompson, professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center.
While Texas may have a reputation for harsh punishments for criminals, Thompson said the state has been leaning toward probation for juveniles, including cases where people are unintentionally killed.
“I think we’ve taken a turn in the direction of rehabilitation,” she said. “Texas has been taking a different tack with situations like this.”
Thompson said the state has learned that harsh sentences for youths, such as prison time, did not necessarily rehabilitate them.
“We found being hard on these kids was counterproductive,” Thompson said, adding that the financial situation of a juvenile’s family has no bearing on their sentence, for the most part.
“Rich or poor, kids are more likely to get probation,” she said.