Cost for the government to paint over some graffiti: $52, 953

“Break-in at Y-12” is a New Yorker story about three pacifists (one an 82-year-old nun) who broke into one of America’s most heavily guarded nuclear storage facilities. One of my favorite parts of the story is how the government calculated its damages from the graffiti scrawled by the miscreants.

2 thoughts on “Cost for the government to paint over some graffiti: $52, 953

  1. It’s not just government that tends to inflate damages.

    A Michigan fraternity vandalized a ski resort (not out of high principle but in Animal House mode). Originally the damages were estimated at $50,000.

    Then the fraternity agreed to cover the damages (probably in exchange for charges being dropped or reduced). Now the requested damages are $430,000, including “fees for lost income, potential profit loss, and brand damage, among other things”. Also “attorneys and accounting fees”.

    These kind of inflated estimates are a crude form of punitive damages, even where the law doesn’t allow punitive damages, only restitution. The idea of punitive damages (as in the case where the secretary had M&Ms dropped into her breast pocket) is to make it really painful for the wrongdoer, so he never wants to do it again. If someone steals your car and when they are caught they only have to pay back the amount that they sold it for, then they might consider that an even exchange and would have no incentive to stop stealing cars in the future. If you take into account the possibility of not getting caught some of the time, overall, car stealing would have a positive expected value for them and it would be rational for them to keep doing it.

    I think it is appropriate to zing wrongdoers to some extent. Say that your next door neighbor was going a little too fast and accidentally hit your mailbox – you might ask him for the cost of a replacement mailbox or since your mailbox was pretty old, you might split the cost with him, and you might absorb the cost of painting the new post yourself – it’s only a little paint that you already have in the garage and a few minutes to slap a coat of paint on it. And you were going to Home Depot anyway, so you wouldn’t bill him for your time and travel to and from the store to buy a new mailbox.

    BUT, say that your neighbor has some beef with you and your kind and he come around with a sledgehammer and intentionally smashes your mailbox – you might have a different attitude and would present him with a long itemized bill.

  2. In Europe, by and large, you would have to present e.g. three independent purveyors’ estimates and a court would try and set “realistic” damages as anything else would be treated as “unjust enrichment”. You must not, under this doctrine, make yourself richer than before the tort. (Which includes not making a third party, e.g. an attorney or a supplier etc., richer than would be justified by the contingency.)

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