When a civil lawsuit for damages is predicated on a criminal act, the criminal prosecution can serve as an invaluable resource to the civil case, particularly due to the applicable principle of collateral estoppel.
Also sometimes referred to as issue preclusion, the common law estoppel doctrine prevents a person from litigating an issue more than once. Where the mutual parties and material facts involved are the same as those in the criminal action, it may not be necessary to take the civil case all the way to trial. In fact, our Montgomery personal injury lawyers know that per Ala. Code 15-18-75, a conviction in a criminal trial may necessarily decide the issue of the defendant’s liability for pecuniary damages to the victim.
We live in one of a handful of states where legislators were increasingly aware of the burden on victims to relitigate duplicative facts in civil cases. This statute allows for a more efficient means of securing recovery of damages for someone who has already endured a traumatic experience.
In these cases, the law stipulates that whatever restitution is ordered paid to the victim in the criminal case (if any), it will be subtracted from the total damages awarded in the civil case. However, nothing in the law bars a victim of a crime from suing a defendant just because he or she has already been paid restitution.
Even if the civil case must still proceed to trial, the facts and evidence presented in the criminal trial can be used under a hearsay exception to help bolster a civil claim.
The state of Alaska passed a measure similar to the one in Alabama with regard to the way successive criminal-and-civil cases are considered, and the recent case of Lane v. Ballot, before the Alaska Supreme Court, shows how the doctrine is applied in practice.
In this case, the original plaintiff (who later died, and whose husband, the representative of her estate, was substituted as the plaintiff) was brutally beaten and raped by the defendant. As a result of the attack, the victim was in a coma for an extended period of time, after which she had to endure several months of physical therapy to regain basic function.
The criminal trial proceeded, and upon conviction, based on the severity of the crime and his extensive felony criminal history, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Meanwhile, the plaintiff filed a civil tort for damages against the defendant. The court granted a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff on the basis of collateral estoppel, finding the criminal conviction for assault established he was liable to her in the civil case. He was ordered to pay her estate $150,000 in damages.
The defendant later appealed this ruling, arguing his criminal conviction was not final, as it was pending appeal, and the verdict against him – guilty but mentally ill – was not enough to establish the elements of the crime of which he was criminally convicted.
The state supreme court rejected his arguments, finding the proof of criminal conviction to be undisputed. The court noted that if the defendant were to be successful in overturning his conviction, he would be free to file a motion to vacate the civil judgment.
Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.
Lane v. Ballot, July 25, 2014, Alaska Supreme Court
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