If you or someone you love recently became a crime victim in Pennsylvania, you may be wondering about your legal rights. Victims often struggle with questions like:
- What if I can't afford my recovery expenses?
- Does Pennsylvania have crime victim restitution programs?
- Who can be held liable for failing to provide adequate security?
- What kinds of damages could I recover in a lawsuit?
Our Pennsylvania crime victim lawyers can help you get the financial compensation you deserve.
"Thank you." They made sure we got the coverage we needed for our expenses.
Thanks to the tireless work of advocacy groups, survivors of crime in Pennsylvania now have numerous rights, including the right to be included in the criminal justice process and receive protection from threats and harassment. Many victims, along with families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, also have a right to financial compensation – both through court-ordered restitution and the State’s compensation fund for survivors.
Negligent Security Laws In Pennsylvania
While these compensation programs are welcome additions to Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, they cannot provide a replacement for long-term financial support. Survivors of crime are often burdened by significant medical expenses. Some will go bankrupt attempting to get the care they need. Meanwhile, trauma and psychological suffering can eat away at life, preventing a full recovery and return to past pleasures.
Civil lawsuits present a potential solution. Filing a lawsuit outside of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system allows victims and their families to pursue damages that no government program will cover, including pain and suffering. These civil lawsuits can even be filed in parallel with a criminal prosecution and, in the event of a criminal conviction, this fact can be introduced as evidence of an offender’s guilt in civil court.
A crime survivor’s right to civil damages doesn’t end there, however. In fact, many victims in Pennsylvania have a little-known legal right to pursue defendants other than the immediate criminal offender. Depending on the facts of a case, third-party property owners who fail to provide adequate security can also be held accountable for allowing crimes to occur.
The Victims Compensation Assistance Program
The State of Pennsylvania’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program, funded through fines and fees levied against convicted offenders, provides financial payments to needy victims of crime. The fund is designed to reimburse survivors and survivors for the immediate financial losses incurred as a result of crime, but it acts as a “payer-of-last-resort.”
In other words, compensation is only available for out-of-pocket expenses (a category that includes insurance co-pays and out-of-network care). Applicants will be required to use up their insurance and government benefits before the Victims Compensation Assistance Program takes over. Despite these hurdles, the compensation fund’s major advantage is that no conviction or arrest is required.
No Conviction Or Arrest Required
Victims have every right to file a claim, and begin receiving payments, even if the criminal offender remains unknown. With that being said, survivors will have to participate, at least minimally, in the criminal justice system to secure compensation. In order to qualify, a victim must satisfy all of the following requirements:
- The crime occurred in Pennsylvania
- The crime was reported within three days (or the victim applied for a protection from abuse order within three days)
- The claim for compensation was filed within two years of the crime (exceptions exist for child victims)
- The survivor cooperates with police, the criminal justice system and the Victims Compensation Assistance Program
- The victim was not involved in illegal activity that caused the crime (claims can also be considered ineligible if the victim’s conduct, though legal, contributed to their injuries)
- The victim has paid or owes at least $100 in covered expenses (this requirement is eliminated for crime victims over the age of 60)
These requirements hold true for families applying to the compensation program after a loved one’s death as well.
Requirements & Limitations
To secure compensation, victims have to prove the exact amount of their losses, providing the Victims Compensation Assistance Program with copies of all receipts and bills incurred due to the crime. Bills for medical care or counseling services should be itemized, as should receipts for funeral or burial services. In short, anything you hope to have compensated should be documented as clearly as possible.
As you might expect, the Assistance Program’s payments are rather low. While the fund pays out nearly $13 million every year, no victim is rewarded over $35,000, the lifetime maximum in compensation. There are also maximum payment limits for specific types of expenses. Like all state compensation funds, Pennsylvania’s program does not offer compensation for pain and suffering.
It also excludes most expenses related to lost or damaged property. Stolen money can only be reimbursed for victims who rely on Social Security or Disability benefits, court-ordered child or spousal support or retirement or pension plans as their primary source of income.
Pennsylvania’s law on court-ordered restitution is far more generous to crime victims than the systems established in other states. In fact, State law 18 Pa C.S. § 1106 provides for mandatory restitution upon an offender’s conviction. Courts in Pennsylvania are required to order convicted offenders to reimburse victims for limited out-of-pocket expenses that directly resulted from the crime. In most cases, restitution awards will be restricted to necessary financial expenses, ones that can be easily-quantified and proven through receipts and bills.
- Medical expenses
- Therapy and counseling costs
- Lost wages
- Lost or damaged personal property
- Travel and childcare expenses (only for services necessary to participate in the criminal justice process)
- Crime scene clean-up
Compensation for the experience of physical pain, emotional trauma or ongoing psychological suffering is not offered through court-ordered restitution. Those damages, which are very real and can be truly devastating, are only available to victims who file a civil lawsuit. Moreover, court-ordered restitution isn’t available to every victim of crime in Pennsylvania. Restitution awards are only mandatory in criminal sentences that relate to crimes in which:
- The victim suffered personal injury
- Property was stolen, converted or otherwise unlawfully obtained
- The value of property was substantially decreased
Restitution comes in addition to any other penalties, fines or fees handed down in an offender’s sentence. The judge’s order does not take the defendant’s financial situation into account; the point, as Pennsylvania’s law makes clear, is “to provide the victim with the fullest compensation for the loss.” In reality, the State’s restitution system may go even further than that.
How Do Insurance & Benefits Affect A Criminal Case Award?
Most states reduce restitution awards when a victim’s insurance company or government benefits have already covered a portion of their losses. Pennsylvania doesn’t. The State is insistent that offenders should pay their victims full compensation. As a result, no previous award of compensation - even payments from the Crime Victim’s Compensation Board - are considered in determining the appropriate amount of restitution.
In fact, criminal offenders can be ordered to reimburse - over-and-above what they pay to victims - the insurance companies and government agencies who have already covered a victim’s out-of-pocket losses. These payments to third-parties, however, always come after the victim has first received their own portion of the compensation.
Crucially, receiving court-ordered restitution does not, in any way, restrict a crime victim’s right to pursue civil damages in their own private lawsuit. There is, however, one hitch. When restitution has already been ordered, the award secured in a civil lawsuit will be reduced by the amount paid as part of the offender’s sentence.
How Are Restitution Awards Determined?
During every criminal prosecution in Pennsylvania, county district attorneys have a legal responsibility to advise the Court on how much restitution would be appropriate, either before or at the time of sentencing, using information they have received from victims.
When a victim fails to provide the necessary information, a district attorney will come up with an appropriate amount on their own and recommend it to the Court. The judge will then take these recommendations, factor in the extent of the victim’s personal injuries and include the final amount in the offender’s sentence.
Securing Restitution In A Criminal Case
Actually getting restitution is the hard part. While many crime victims will be awarded substantial sums, the full amount is rarely ever received. Technically, convicted criminals are required to fulfill their restitution obligations. In fact, paying out the full amount of ordered compensation can be made a condition of probation or parole, meaning some offenders will not be released from incarceration until they have satisfied the sentence.
Pennsylvania’s Courts, though, aren’t blind to the financial difficulties that many convicted offenders face. As a result, judges have the choice of ordering criminals to reimburse a victim either through a lump-sum or in monthly installments. Monthly installments are far more common, especially in cases of serious violent crime, where restitution awards can be considerable.
Offender Resources Often Limit Restitution Fulfillment
Most criminal offenders don’t have the financial means to pay these awards - and no way to get it. Standard procedure is to garnish an offender’s wages inside prison, but, considering that the maximum wage a federal prisoner will be paid per day is around $4.73, few victims will ever see full compensation that way.
These basic realities are why some crime victims and their families make use of a different legal avenue, pursuing a wide range of damages in court. Survivors of crime, along with their loved ones, have the right to hold criminal offenders and negligent third-parties accountable for compensation by filing a civil lawsuit.
Negligent Security Lawsuits: Another Option For Compensation
Pennsylvania’s laws recognize that property owners throughout the state have a basic obligation to protect visitors, residents and other lawful guests. This is a duty, one that applies equally to:
- Apartment buildings
- Schools, colleges and universities
- Parking lots and garages
All property owners must ensure that their real estate is adequately equipped for security purposes, keeping customers and inhabitants safe from the potential actions of criminals. By the same token, property owners can be held accountable for failing to protect lawful guests in what are known as negligent security lawsuits. Claims for compensation can be filed both by survivors of criminal acts and, in the form of wrongful death lawsuits, by family members whose loved ones were tragically killed by criminal offenders.
A Property Owner’s Duties In Pennsylvania
Negligent security lawsuits fall under the large legal category of premises liability, which places a number of responsibilities on property owners. Within this legal domain, two essential questions come clearly into view:
- How foreseeable was the criminal activity?
- How reasonable were the property owner’s attempts to prevent the crime or step in to mitigate the crime’s effects?
As to the first question, most Courts hold that properties in high-crime areas require more rigorous security measures than ones where crime is rare. The majority of cases, however, come down to even more specific facts.
What Makes A Crime Foreseeable?
Whether or not a crime can be considered foreseeable often amounts to whether or not similar crimes occurred on the property in the recent past. A series of violent crimes, for example, should put a property owner on watch that security cameras or licensed security guards are a good idea. In fact, property owners may even have a duty, at least in Pennsylvania, to go out of their way, searching historical records for crime patterns and assessing their properties for the likelihood of a crime occurring in the future.
After determining what security duties a property owner owed to lawful guests, Courts in Pennsylvania turn next to the question of which security measures the owner put into place. Most plaintiffs will rely on the expertise of independent security professionals to argue that a reasonable property owner, given the area’s history of crime, would have instituted better safety practices than were actually in place.
Obviously, the security improvements suggested will vary from case-to-case, but it should go without saying that all apartments need working locks, all parking lots require bright lighting and most nightclubs could benefit from the presence of multiple bouncers. As an important side, bouncers and security guards, by the very nature of their profession, have a legal obligation to intervene when a crime is being committed. Likewise, security companies and individual bouncers can be held accountable for failing to do so.
Negligent Hiring, Retention & Supervision
Negligent security is only one of several viable causes of action recognized by Pennsylvania’s civil courts. Where crime is concerned, property and business owners may also be liable for crimes committed by their own employees. Under the State’s negligent hiring, retention and supervision laws, commercial business owners are responsible for using reasonable care in hiring and training workers.
A church, for example, can be held accountable for hiring a pastor or youth group leader with a history of criminal convictions for child abuse, when the offender goes on to commit more heinous acts. A spa that continues to employ a massage therapist after accusations of sexual assault could also be on the hook for a future victim’s damages. In essence, all of these potential claims are brought together by the principle that business owners must take adequate steps to protect other people from foreseeable risks.
Pennsylvania is among a small group of states that continue to recognize a legal distinction between types of visitors:
- Invitee - a person who is invited to enter or remain on land in line with the property’s purpose, e.g. a business customer or person in public park
- Invitees are owed the highest level of duty
- Licensee - a person who is privileged to enter or remain on land by virtue of the property owner’s consent
- Property owners are given more leeway in respect to licensees
- Trespasser - a person who enters or remains upon land in the possession of another without the privilege to do so created by the possessor’s consent or otherwise
- Trespasser’s can only secure damages if the property owner committed wanton or willful negligence or misconduct
Most states have moved away from classifying visitors differently in premises liability, granting all guests, even trespassers, a measure of legal protection in the event of personal injury.
Statutes Of Limitation
Every state has a collection of laws that limit the amount of time injured people have to file civil lawsuits: statutes of limitation. Most claims filed in Pennsylvania by victims of crime or their families will be governed by a 2-year statute of limitations.
The one exception to this general rules comes in cases of childhood sexual abuse, where victims are given up to 12 years after reaching their 18th birthday to file suit. These cases, commonly filed against religious organizations and schools, are thus open until the survivor of sexual abuse reaches the age of 30.
When Does A Claim Accrue?
In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations usually begins to run on the date that a legal claim for compensation “accrues.” In most cases, this “accrual” occurs when a victim becomes aware, or should become aware, that their injuries were due to the actions of someone else - in essence, the day a victim realized that filing their lawsuit was possible.
In practice, the date of accrual can be rather flexible. In cases of assault and battery, for example, most courts in the State will start the statute of limitations on the day that the plaintiff was attacked by the defendant. The time limit for false imprisonment, on the other hand, would likely begin only after the plaintiff has been released from captivity. Wrongful death claims, also governed by a 2-year statute of limitations, begin to accrue on the date of a loved one’s death. Flexibility isn’t generosity.
Statutes of limitation are binding laws, with few exceptions. Don’t wait to investigate your legal options. Miss out on filing your lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations and you’ve given the defendant a huge gift. Courts normally dismiss late claims out-of-hand. Even so, there are exceptions. Our attorneys have successfully filed lawsuits after the statute of limitations ran out.