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Collecting millions from Unite the Right organizers may be tough

James Fields
NPR
/
James Fields, liable for about half of the damages assessed by a federal district court, is in prison -- unlikely to be able to pay anything.

The American Bar Association warns that collecting damages requires strategy, creativity, diligence and patience.

Take Sines v. Kessler for example – the Charlottesville suit against 14 people and ten groups accused of organizing a violent rally in 2017. That event ended when James Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring dozens more. About half of the damages awarded by the jury were against Fields, and UVA law professor Richard Shragger says Fields and some other defendants may pay nothing.

“Some of these defendants are going to be what we call judgment proof. They don’t have assets – bank accounts, jobs. If they’re in prison and don’t have any work, then it’s harder to collect,” he explains.

On the other hand, he says, defendants like Richard Spencer may be followed by the plaintiffs for the rest of their lives.

“They can seek court orders to pay, and enforce those orders and either force these individuals – if they can’t pay – into bankruptcy, or get an order to garnish wages if they do have jobs.”

Real estate, cars, bank accounts and other assets could all be seized in payment for what amounts to a debt. It would likely be impossible for defendants to get a bank loan, and even in bankruptcy the debt associated with punitive damages may remain.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.