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California: Victim’s Post-Death Economic Losses Not Subject to Mandatory Restitution

The California Supreme Court has reversed a restitution order assessed against a defendant who, while driving intoxicated, killed another driver in a freeway collision. The Court held that 1) the estate of the accident victim (who died without heirs) was not itself a “direct victim” of a crime; 2) the executor of the decedent’s estate is nonetheless entitled to collect mandatory restitution on the decedent’s behalf for economic losses the decedent personally incurred before death as an actual victim of the defendant’s criminal conduct; but 3) post-death economic losses are not subject to mandatory restitution.

The Supreme Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the “Victims’ Bill of Rights” incorporated in California’s Constitution, as amended by Proposition 9 (Marsy’s Law), which specifies that a crime victim is entitled to restitution and defines “victim” as including “a lawful representative of a crime victim who is deceased.”

After being convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and sentenced to six years in prison, Paul Dean Runyan was ordered to pay restitution totaling $446,486 to the estate of Donald Benge, the other driver he killed in April 2007. The restitution amount was assessed pursuant to the mandatory restitution statute, Penal Code Section 1202.4, and was based on economic losses sustained by Benge’s estate.

Runyan appealed the restitution order, arguing that under Section 1202.4 restitution was available only to a “direct victim” of his crime, and that because the estate was not a “direct victim” and Benge had died without heirs, there was no identifiable “victim” entitled to restitution. Believing that the legislature could not have intended such a result, the Court of Appeal upheld the restitution order. See: People v. Runyan, 188 Cal. App. 4th 1010 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2010).

The Supreme Court reversed, determining that after the actual victim of a crime has died, he or she does not incur, or continue to incur, personal economic losses subject to mandatory restitution. Because no portion of the restitution award upheld by the Court of Appeal represented an economic loss incurred prior to Benge’s death as a result of Runyan’s crime, the Court found there was no valid basis for any of the restitution amounts awarded to Benge’s estate.

“We are mindful of the concern, expressed by both the trial court and the Court of Appeal, that denial of restitution to a deceased victim’s estate under the circumstances presented here produces a perverse result the Legislature cannot have intended – i.e., that a criminal defendant may minimize his or her restitutionary obligation by instantly killing a victim, rather than by causing mere nonfatal injury,” the Supreme Court wrote. “But a rule against postdeath restitution on a deceased victim’s personal behalf is consistent with the rule of damages that has applied by statute for more than 60 years in analogous civil cases of wrongful death.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeal’s judgment, and thus the restitution order imposed on Runyan, was reversed. See: People v. Runyan, 54 Cal. 4th 849, 279 P.3d 1143 (Cal. 2012).

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Related legal case

People v. Runyan