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State v. Baker

Supreme Court of Vermont

October 6, 2017

State of Vermont
Ty Baker, Sr.

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Criminal Division

          A. Gregory Rainville, J. David Tartter, Deputy State's Attorney, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, and Rebecca Turner and Amanda Isaacs, Appellate Defenders, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. On May 3, 2016, Ty Baker, Sr. pleaded no contest to grossly negligent operation in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1091(b) after his car collided with and totaled another car. Husband and wife owned the car and wife was driving the car when the accident occurred. Following his conviction and a contested restitution hearing, Baker was ordered to pay $828.88, which were lost wages for husband, who was not in the car at the time of the collision. Baker appeals the restitution order, arguing that husband does not qualify as a "victim" under the restitution statute, that the lost wages were not a "direct result" of defendant's crime, and that the State's evidence was insufficient to prove the amount of restitution. 13 V.S.A. § 5301(4); 13 V.S.A. § 7043. We hold that even if husband was a victim under the restitution statute, his lost wages were not a direct result of defendant's criminal act and therefore fall outside the scope of Vermont's restitution statute, 13 V.S.A. § 7043. Accordingly, we reverse and vacate the restitution order.

         ¶ 2. The facts are as follows. On September 4, 2015, Baker was driving his vehicle in Swanton when he crossed the center line and collided with an oncoming car driven by wife. Wife and her children, who live in Massachusetts, were driving to Vermont for vacation. Husband had stayed home to work, but upon hearing of the accident, he left work about half-way into his shift to come to Vermont. Husband was working weekend shifts that lasted twelve hours-4:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.-so before driving to Vermont on September 4 to pick up his family, he slept for a few hours. He arrived in Vermont on September 5 and attended to various issues associated with the accident, including matters concerning the police, insurance, and retrieving personal items from the damaged car. The family returned to Massachusetts together on September 6. In total, husband missed 29.25 hours of work, resulting in lost wages of $828.88. Insurance did not cover his lost wages.

         ¶ 3. The court held a restitution hearing on September 7, 2016. The court first found that husband qualified as a "victim" under the restitution statute, reasoning that he was a joint owner of the totaled car and therefore suffered financial injury as a direct result of the crime. The court then considered whether husband's lost wages were compensable under the restitution statute. The court reasoned that, although the family initially came to Vermont for vacation, Baker's crime "changed the nature of their visit entirely"; the time that husband took away from work was to deal with matters directly caused by Baker's crime. Thus, it concluded, husband's lost wages were a direct result of Baker's crime and therefore compensable under the restitution statute. Finally, the court determined the amount of restitution. It noted that there was no evidence at the time of husband's decision to drive to Vermont that Baker's insurance would cover a rental car or would even accept liability, and the court ordered restitution for the full amount claimed of $828.88. The court refused to consider any testimony or argument that husband could have lessened the time he missed from work. This appeal followed.

         ¶ 4. On appeal, Baker challenges the restitution order on three bases. First, he argues that husband is not a "victim" under the restitution statute. Second, he argues that husband's lost wages were not the "direct result" of his crime. Finally, he argues that the State's evidence is insufficient to prove the amount of restitution, and specifically, he contests the court's finding that husband's three days of lost work was reasonable based on sufficient, credible evidence.

         ¶ 5. Baker's first argument, that husband is not a "victim" for purposes of restitution, requires us to interpret the restitution statute, 13 V.S.A. § 7043, and its incorporated definition of "victim." 13 V.S.A. § 5301(4). Our review is therefore de novo. State v. Gorton, 2014 VT 1, ¶ 8, 195 Vt. 460, 90 A.3d 901. In the absence of ambiguity, "we enforce the statute according to its terms." Payne v. U.S. Airways, Inc., 2009 VT 90, ¶ 24, 186 Vt. 458, 987 A.2d 944.

         ¶ 6. Here, the statutory language is explicit with respect to who qualifies as a victim: "victim" is defined as "a person who sustains physical, emotional or financial injury or death as a direct result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime or act of delinquency." 13 V.S.A. § 5301(4); see also id. § 7043(a) (incorporating the definition of "victim" in § 5301(4)). The statute narrows the category of victims eligible to receive restitution to those who have "suffered a material loss." 13 V.S.A. § 7043(a)(1). "Material loss, " in turn, is "uninsured property loss, uninsured out-of-pocket monetary loss, uninsured lost wages, and uninsured medical expenses." Id. § 7043(a)(2). Thus, "victim" and "material loss" are distinct concepts. While an individual may qualify as a victim for purposes of restitution, a victim will be eligible for restitution only if, and to the extent that, he or she has suffered a "material loss."

         ¶ 7. Here, husband qualifies as a victim under the restitution statute because he sustained financial injury through his ownership interest in the damaged car.[1] This conclusion is in line with our previous decisions. For example, in State v. Morse, the defendant crashed his truck into a car owned by the car driver's mother. 2014 VT 84, ¶ 22, 197 Vt. 495, 106 A.3d 902. While not stating it explicitly, we defined the mother as a victim for purposes of restitution and affirmed the trial court's order of restitution for damage to the car. Id. Here, wife testified at the restitution hearing that she believed she and husband were joint owners of the vehicle involved in the accident and that both of their names were listed on the vehicle's insurance, and the court found those statements to be credible. Just as in Morse, the accident for which Baker was convicted damaged husband and wife's vehicle, meaning that husband suffered financial loss as a direct result of the crime. See also State v. Jarvis, 146 Vt. 636, 638, 509 A.2d 1005, 1006 (1986) (noting that recoverable losses "include, but are not necessarily limited to, hospital bills, property value, and lost employment income" (emphasis added)). Our conclusion that husband qualifies as a victim due to his financial loss in the vehicle does not mean that the lost wages he claims are recoverable in restitution. We must still consider whether his lost wages qualify as a "material loss" that can be recovered via restitution because his wage loss was directly related to the criminal act. [2]

         ¶ 8. Baker argues that husband's lost wages were not properly recoverable via restitution because they were not directly linked to his crime as required by the restitution statute's definition of "victim" as a person who has suffered injury "as a direct result of the commission . . . of a crime." 13 V.S.A. § 5301(4) (emphasis added). The State, on the other hand, argues that husband's decision to drive to Vermont was reasonable, stemming from circumstances that were the "natural and probable consequence[s]" of Baker's crime. This appeal, thus, hinges on what constitutes a "direct result, " and specifically, on what form of causation the statute requires.

         ¶ 9. The State's argument is that reasonable actions taken in response to the natural and probable consequences of a crime are recoverable via restitution. This argument essentially asks us to use a but-for standard of causation. By asking us to accept that restitution is appropriate because "[t]hey needed to deal with the aftermath of the accident, " the State is arguing that results, such as husband's lost wages that would not have occurred but for a crime, and reasonable efforts to deal with those results fall within the purview of the restitution statute. We have, however, already interpreted the phrase "direct result" in the restitution context to require something more than but-for causation. See State v. LaFlam, 2008 VT 108, ¶¶ 8, 11, 184 Vt. 629, 965 A.2d 519 (mem.) (declining to find direct link and rejecting but-for causation as "the sole standard for causation for restitution in Vermont"). "But-for" causation is satisfied if an injury "would not have occurred 'but for' the defendant's conduct." Collins v. Thomas, 2007 VT 92, ¶ 8, 182 Vt. 250, 938 A.2d 1208; see also Cause, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining "but-for" causation as "[t]he cause without which the event could not have occurred"). The scope of restitution, however, ...

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