Those Pesky Lawsuits
You hear it in the news all the time: ridiculous lawsuits granting “victims” millions of dollars for trivial grievances. Conversely, you hear of rich people getting away with crimes that would result jail time were the perpetrator poor. The Bible has some interesting answers to such injustice.
15. Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.
This sentiment can also be found in Ex. 23:1-9, Deut. 1:16-18, and Deut 16:18-20.
Our justice system is a far cry from this ideal. Injustice is meted out to both rich and poor because we do not obey this principle.
I have listened to judges running for office. They generally say nothing but platitudes in order to avoid prejudicing future cases. But one of the favorite platitudes is that they will judge the person instead of the crime. This is in direct violation of Biblical principles! According to the Bible, punishment should be based on the crime, not the person’s background. An upstanding member of society should get the same treatment as someone from the ghetto. Whether someone had a bad childhood should have nothing to do with it. Ditto for prior convictions. Whether a crime was part of a fraternity prank or part of a criminal career should be irrelevant. (If the mandated punishment is too much for the frat boy, then it is too much for the gang member.)
On the other hand, those who are well off are more vulnerable to damage lawsuits. All too often doctors and big corporations are seen as a source of money for poor litigants by juries and personal injury lawyers. We hear regularly on the news punitive damage awards that are ridiculously high, due to the wealth of the perpetrator instead of the magnitude of the proven damage. The result is higher doctor bills, and stupid warning messages on all consumer products. (Then again, what doesn’t get enough press, conversely, is the number of people who fail to get deserved compensation by big corporations because the big corporations can hire better lawyers. This is also injustice.)
We have a conundrum: if we set punitive damages too low, the rich and powerful can endanger others with impunity. If we set them too high, smaller businesses cannot afford liability coverage. This would seem to argue for punishment based on wealth in order to have proper deterrence. But if we do that, we get opportunistic lawsuits.
The Biblical approach to this quandary is both interesting and disturbing (Ex 21):
12. He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
13. And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.
14. But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.
15. And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
16. And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
17. And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.
18. And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
19. If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.
20. And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
21. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
22. If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25. Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Manslaughter was a death penalty offense. Causing injury was an offense that required similar injury. It is one thing to sue for money, quite another to sue for retaliatory injury or even death.
However, there were circumstances where the modern punitive damages were allowed. (Ex 21 again):
28. If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.
29. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.
30. If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.
31. Whether he have gored a son, or have gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done unto him.
32. If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
Perhaps the ox goring scenario is the proper precedent for the modern coffee cup scenario. If so, then the court could assess punitive damages as was done, and if those responsible considered the monetary damages excessive, then they could refuse the ransom and opt for “eye for eye”, in this case subjecting themselves to the hot coffee treatment.
But note that elsewhere the idea of monetary compensation for life is deprecated. Numbers 35:
31. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.
32. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest.
33. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.
34. Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel.
The references to cities of refuge are quite interesting. They are described in detail in Numbers 35. I will have you look it up since the quote is long. The basic idea is that someone guilty of manslaughter could be legally killed by an “avenger,” presumably a member or agent of the victims family. However, if the one who committed manslaughter were to flee to one of six cities of refuge, he could not legally be killed unless proven to be an intentional murderer. But this protection only applied as long as the manslayer stayed in the city of refuge. This condition lasted until the death of the chief priest, so I presume that this averaged out as a decade or two. After the death of the chief priest, this internal exile ended and the manslayer could safely return home.
I do think we ought to consider at least some of these ideas for modern application. Our legal system is torn several different ways regarding risky behaviors. We hesitate to fully harm those who cause harm due to their recklessness; eye for eye seems barbaric to most these days. But because of this, we end up with a slew of safety regulations and laws that are very confining. By taking away full responsibility, we lose significant amounts of freedom.
The city of refuge concept is an interesting alternative to fines or outright imprisonment for accidental deaths caused by reckless behavior, such as drunk driving. Our system of safety regulation is not objective. Different people lose different amounts of driving skills due to blood alcohol levels. Some impaired drivers properly drive slowly and carefully when impaired. They are no more dangerous than the aged who are just as impaired when sober. On the other hand, some people drive more aggressively when drunk; they are the truly dangerous. By having a real punishment, drinkers can judge for themselves what is safe and take true responsibility for their choices. Exile to a city of refuge is a punishment that modern juries should be able to stomach, so the threat of such punishment would be real. Accidental death could be punished by a life sentence of such exile – on the order of 20 years or more. Lesser damages could result in shorter terms.blog comments powered by Disqus
Copyright© 2005, Carl S. Milsted, Jr. All rights reserved.
Quotations from the NET Bible®, copyright© 1996-2006 Biblical Studies Press L.L.C. All rights reserved. Used by permission from http://bible.org. (The NET Bible is available in its entirety as a free download or online use at http://netbible.org)