Home News Citizen Crash Course: Gray Areas of Riots

Citizen Crash Course: Gray Areas of Riots

by Laura Steinberg

American citizens are getting a crash course this year on the economic gray areas of liability for damage done by riots. It would make sense that cities are responsible for providing law and order, so shirking their duties should have consequences.

Don’t bank on it. Only sixteen states allow any kind of recovery and things get tricky in all of those. Your best bet is really good insurance.

Riots are expensive

One thing that we can say for sure is that “peaceful” protests are very expensive these days. Violent civil insurrection organized by Black Lives Matter cost the United States somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion dollars in damages this year.

The experts call that a catastrophe. Businesses and homeowners in urban areas are typically prone to “property losses due to riots, civil commotion, or vandalism” as thousands learned the hard way. Individual people have also been injured by out of control mobs.

The word riots typically means “an unlawful disturbance of the peace by a group of three or more people who act in a violent manner that threatens the public or an institution.” That doesn’t happen when the police are around and doing their duty.

A “civil commotion” involves more people. An “uprising” is directed directly against the government, like in the case of torching a police station. Vandalism is the crime most are familiar with. The intentional destruction of someone else’s property, like graffiti. All of those things are crimes, but don’t count on the lack of police to impose any obligations on the city to pay for any of it.

All the way back in 1965 legal scholars started fighting over who should pay for the damage from riots. It is the responsibility of local government to maintain order. Does it follow then, that a person damaged by a public disorder can recover from the municipality which failed to keep the peace? Maybe.

Sovereign immunity” from liability

State and local governments generally claim “sovereign immunity” from liability for failures which are purely “governmental.” In 16 American states, they have special laws to override that in cases of riots. Everywhere else, “an injured citizen has no action against his municipality no matter how derelict it has been in maintaining order.”

In the places that do make cities responsible for riots, “the scope of the liability takes various forms. A few states allow recovery for personal injury as well as property damage.” After you jump through the flaming hoops, that is.

In Connecticut, Kentucky, and Maryland, they “abandon the strict liability approach and require a showing of some dereliction of duty on the part of the government in suppressing or controlling the riot.” Three other states “allow only a partial recovery.”

In California, they had a special statute for riots but eventually got rid of it, after they had to drive stake through it’s heart. All the way back in 1868, they “imposed absolute liability on the local political entity, and allowed full recovery.”

The Chinese Tong wars were raging in California during the late 19th century. They thought it went away when they repealed the underlying law granting themselves sovereign immunity.

It turned out that after the “enormous change in California law cast adrift scores of statutes, leaving them abrogating something which no longer existed, it had no such effect on the riot damage act.

This act imposed a liability which was absolute. While immunity was the rule it operated as a waiver of that immunity. If liability was the rule it still served to impose an ABSOLUTE liability which would not have existed without the statute.

It didn’t stick. Liberals went back and changed the law to kill the liability act. Today in California you definitely need insurance against riots, and the loss of income that might also come even if your building isn’t burned or looted.

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