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Putting a Price on Political Tresspass to Chattels

November 22nd, 2006

Let me start this post off with a valuable terminology lesson. A chattel, which looks a lot like cattle and even covers livestock in its definition, is essentially any kind of property which is not real property. Better stated, a chattel is anything you can own and move.

Having said that, take a look at this article in the Seattle PI about the New Hamshire Democrats suing the Republicans for $4.1 million on a tresspass to chattel theory. Here’s a quick summary: Democrats and Republicans in a big fight over a House seat in the 2002 election (yes, four years ago); Democrats spend an estimated $8.2 million on a phone bank get-out-the-vote (GOTV) system; Republicans pay a telemarketer to place “hang up” calls to the phone bank, effectively blocking outgoing calls from the phone bank; Republican incumbent wins 2002 race; bunch of Republicans are sent to jail for their involvement.

It’s all well a good that people are being thrown into jail for this behavior, but the Democrats are looking for financial reimbursement. See, the race is lost and there isn’t much that can be done about that (although, one wonders if this could have been the deciding factor…), but what about 2004, or 2006, or 2008? Certainly, the Republicans should have to restore the Democrats to the position they would have been but not for their tortious behavior.

Well, that’s what this case is about. See, the Republicans are arguing all they owe is $4,974 (the actual cost of the disrupted telephone service and rental costs). Essentially, the only costs the Democrats can show “on paper.” Wherease the Democrats are asking for enough money to be able to run the phone bank again. So, whose right?

If the Republicans are right, heaven help us. Because that is the green light to the party (any party) to engage in clearly tortious activity with actual1 loses as the only penalty. If I may pant an analogy… if I run into your car and it blows up, the Republicans would argue I only owe you a new car. But what if, as a result of your car blowing up, you miss an important business meeting and lose out on a million dollar deal? Or, let’s say you suffer serious physical injury that prevents you from certain kinds of valuable work? In those cases, within the realm of foreseeability, the defendant must compensate the plaintiff.

The Republicans acted indefensibly, criminally, and knowingly. It’s not enough that those responsible are being thrown in jail… the injured party must be fairly compensated. Shutting down a GOTV system on election day is worth more than $4,974.

1. Actual damages, just the harm immediately suffered, as opposed to special damages, which cover the rest of the kinds of harm.

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