Several years ago, Jacqueline Badger Mars, Co-Owner of the Mars candy company, pled guilty to reckless driving that resulted in death. She was sentenced to a fine of $2,500 and a six-month driving suspension. It appears that Mars was driving on Route 50 in Loudoun when she crossed the center line and hit an on-coming mini-van. Tragically, a passenger in that van died, and the driver suffered the loss of her unborn child.
Now readers may be wondering why Ms. Mars’s sentence didn’t involve significant jail time. Shouldn’t she be held at fault for causing such devastating effects? Mars’s case highlights the difference between “criminal” court and “civil” court.
In Virginia, reckless driving (the charge for which she was convicted) is a Class I misdemeanor. The maximum jail sentence is up to 1 year in jail. Frankly, she could have reasonably been charged with improper driving, failure to maintain control, and other non-criminal offense that don’t even authorize the court to sentence a driver to jail. The reason being is Mars’s behavior, while obviously resulting in tragedy, was not so egregious as to lead to “serious” CRIMINAL intent. For instance, no one would say that she intended to strike the oncoming minivan. Rather, she was “reckless” in that her behavior was so careless that it could easily lead to physical harm or death.
I often have clients hit by drivers who have run red lights, overtook turns, etc. that caused serious injury. While they maintain “civil” claims, asking drivers to go to jail for long periods of time wouldn’t make much sense because they didn’t intend to cause the harm. It’s more of an “accident.”
And that’s exactly the purpose of “civil" law. When people are negligent, civil law allows victims of that negligence to seek monetary compensation to make them “whole.” So for instance in Mars’s case, while she didn’t serve time, I will bet that there will be civil litigation leading to significant monetary compensating for personal injury and wrongful death.