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Affluenza: A Get Out of Jail Free Card?

Affluenza: A Get Out of Jail Free Card?

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Does affluenza outweigh justice?

After stealing beer from a Walmart, an intoxicated driver plowed his pickup truck into four Good Samaritans who had stopped to assist a driver who had a flat tire. He killed all four people.

Two of the seven people in the drunk driver’s pickup truck were ejected during the crash. One of them suffered severe injuries and is now paralyzed and on a ventilator; the other passenger also suffered severe injuries.

It was later determined that three hours after the crash, the driver’s alcohol level was 240…three times the legal limit. The driver admitted his guilt.

The case went to trial. Of course, he was going to be found guilty and spend a lot of time in jail for destroying the lives of so many people and their families. However, instead he was sentenced to 10 years probation in a posh Newport Beach rehabilitation facility, spending his days taking yoga, cooking classes, horseback riding, and some counseling. His wealthy parents will pay the $450,000 cost.

How can this possibly happen?

Affluenza reared its ugly head

This is the case of the Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, who lived a life of privilege and wealth. In court, his attorneys used a little used defense. They claimed he suffered from affluenza.

Affluenza Defined

Affluenza is NOT a real medical diagnosis.

It seems to be a creative way to dismiss bad behavior and the accountability for it. And it does not have to apply only to the affluent. Overly permissive parents can be at the other end of the financial spectrum. Overly permissive can be defined in many ways. “Absent” parents could be considered permissive. Consider how you would define overly permissive. Would you include hard-working parents who cannot be available for their children? What about parents involved in criminal activities?

The teenager was to remain blameless for killing four people and maiming two others because his parents never set limits for him. He pled guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing bodily injury. Prosecutors asked for 20 years in jail; instead, he got 10 years’ probation.

The psychologist in the case, Dr. Dick Miller, was quoted as saying, “He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way. He had the cars, and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.” The same psychologist later told Anderson Cooper of CNN that the 16-year-old was a “spoiled brat”.

In a taped interview with Mr. Cooper, Dr. Miller said he felt rehabilitation was best for the teenager. He will be a ward of the state and isolated from what’s important to him. However, the sad reality is that this young man may learn nothing except what it’s like to live without his Xbox for a while.

Did Affluenza Deny Justice?

How can this possibly be justice for the victims of this horrific incident? Although the court considered what was best for this young man, who considered what was best for the victims and their families?

According to reports, the family of the young man who is now paralyzed is suing the family of the drunk teen for $20 million to pay for the care their son will require for the rest of his life.

Once again, someone other than this teen will be responsible for the outcome of his actions.

Affluenza “Legislative Vaccine”

California Assemblyman Mike Gatto wondered whether the same defense could be used in his state.

On 1/14/2014, he introduced assembly bill AB 1508 that may be the first in the country to prohibit attorneys from using “affluenza” as a defense at trial or as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

Mr. Gatto was quoted as saying, “There is no universally agreed upon definition for the term, which seems more metaphorical than medical.” Robin Abcarian of the LA Times reported, “In AB 1508, he defines it as ‘the notion that an affluent or overly permissive upbringing prevents a defendant from fully understanding the consequences of criminal actions.’” ( Get the full bill here:)

Is Your State Immune to Affluenza?

Is this a defense that can be used in your state? How would you argue this defense in a tragic personal injury case? Is providing an irresponsible youngster a “get out of jail free” card really in his best interest? Does this protect him and the public?

It seems that teens listen to teens. Perhaps we all would be better served if this young man had to go speak to other at-risk teens about what happened. It may help prevent other tragedies and protect others from losing their lives before they have even begun.

Should his parents have to do more than pay for rehabilitation? Do they need to learn how to set limits? Can they speak to other families as well?

There were no winners in the outcome of this case. Four people were dead, two severely injured, families were devastated…and a young teenager was left with leading a life knowing he caused this. How do you live with that?

Hopefully the outrage caused by this affluenza defense will lead to a serious look at how to prevent these tragedies and teach youngsters accountability and responsibility.

Do you have cases that involve serious injuries from motor vehicle accidents? Do you need help sorting through mountains of records filled with complex treatments and diagnoses? Contact us…we can help!

Jane D. Heron RN, BSN, MBA, LNCC is a legal nurse consultant at Med League.

Med League provides medical expert witnesses to trial lawyers. Please call us at (908)788-8227 or contact us today to discuss your next case.

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