Bridgegate – Class Action Plaintiffs Have Lower Burden of Proof; Punitive Damages, RICO Possible

The criminal convictions on all counts of two former New Jersey officials for their role in unlawfully impeding drivers from accessing the George Washington Bridge [“Bridgegate”] buttresses the pending class action civil suits against them for regular and punitive damages, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who helped develop novel legal theories under which those who unlawfully block traffic can face civil suits as well as criminal trials for greater deterrent effect.

Indeed, says Banzhaf, the testimony under oath by two key witnesses that Governor Chris Christie knew about the planned closures might provide a very strong basis upon which to add him to the list of current defendants. Moreover, the ready availability of extensive testimony under oath, which was so overwhelmingly convincing that jurors convicted them both, could encourage other attorneys to file new law suits now that the heavy legal lifting has been done, says Banzhaf.

More specifically David Wildstein, who plead guilty to conspiracy, as well as Bill Baroni and Anne Kelly, who were today convicted of major felonies, face massive liability in civil law suits.

In addition to a variety of claims – including false imprisonment – in at least two civil class action law suits which have already been filed, cronies of Christie could also face legal actions under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations [RICO] Act for damages they caused to thousands of motorists, and perhaps to many others, suggests Banzhaf, whose legal memo helped trigger a massive successful RICO suit against the tobacco industry.

An intriguing precedent may be found in the RICO action brought against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Indeed, one of the attorneys who helped defend Blagojevich said in a radio interview that: “I see Chris Christie having a lot of problems now underneath the wire fraud, maybe a RICO statute as well coming down the line.” Referring to the allegation that Sandy relief funds were deliberately withheld from Hoboken for political reasons, Sam Adam Jr. said “that’s exactly what happened with Blagojevich. . . That he was connecting campaign funds with contracts.”

Although originally designed to provide a more powerful legal weapon for attacking organized crime and organized crime figures, RICO has been applied much more broadly to encompass situations including securities violations; the coverup of sex abuse by Catholic dioceses; the Key West, Florida, Police Department for running a protection racket; a pro-life organization for impeding access to abortion clinics; and even a lawyer engaged in a Ponzi scheme, says Professor Banzhaf. More recently, it was used against the major cigarette manufacturers in a RICO action Banzhaf helped to instigate.

The tobacco RICO action was triggered in part by a memo Prof. Banzhaf submitted to the government which outlined the legal theories under which the action could be brought. Not surprisingly, Banzhaf has been called “The Law Professor Who Masterminded Litigation Against the Tobacco Industry,” and “a Driving Force Behind the Lawsuits That Have Cost Tobacco Companies Billions of Dollars.”

Criminal actions help to punish the guilty, but if possible they should be supplemented by civil suits to compensate victims and provide an even strong deterrent, argues Banzhaf.