Yesterday a client asked me a very good question. We were talking about something bad someone has done recently, which seems to be a clear violation of the law. She asked, “How can they get away with that?”
What does it mean to “get away” with something? It means to do something bad and not to face any consequences or punishment. The truth is that anyone can “get away” with anything, right up until they don’t. In other words, people can do whatever they want or feel like doing and they won’t face any consequences until someone imposes consequences upon them. (Or I suppose unless they impose consequences on themselves!) It used to be that “imposing consequences” meant fist fights, duels, shootouts, wars, feuds, or lynchings. Fortunately, for the most part, we live in a society where “imposing consequences” happens in one of two ways: either the government gets mad and prosecutes criminally, or someone else gets mad and prosecutes civilly.
So can they “get away” with it? Yes, right up until either they get prosecuted by the government or sued by someone who was hurt by whatever they did. The problem, and the frustration many (including myself) have with our system, is that suing someone is a time- and money-consuming process. In my client’s case, the bad actor may well “get away” with it for a year or two, before we are finally able to (hopefully) get a court to agree with us and impose consequences. Along the way, she may have to spend significant amounts of money to try to impose those consequences.
So can they “get away” with it? Only in the same sense that a bank robber “gets away” with robbing a bank, right up until the moment they catch and arrest him. Civilly, someone can breach a contract with you or negligently hit a baseball through your car window and “get away” with it, right up until the moment that you sue them. That’s the way the system works.