The criminal and civil justice systems serve inherently different purposes. While the criminal system seeks to penalize a defendant for actions that violate the law, the civil system is designed to offer financial compensation to those who have been harmed by the wrongdoing of others.
In some cases, criminal actions can give rise to a civil lawsuit. While the criminal justice system sometimes proffers restitution to the victim, that is not its primary purpose. However, when a conviction is obtained in a criminal case, it can serve to bolster the stance of a plaintiff in a civil case stemming from the same incident. It may even allow the plaintiff in some cases to circumvent a trial altogether under collateral estoppel, which our Hollywood personal injury lawyers know is the principle that the courts need not litigate the same facts twice.
This was the case for the plaintiff in Lane v. Ballot, heard recently by the Alaska Supreme Court. Although this is an out-of-state case, the same general legal principles apply.
The original plaintiff in the case was a victim of a brutal rape and beating inflicted by the defendant, who had a lengthy prior criminal record. Later, the plaintiff died of causes unrelated to the crime, and her widower was substituted as the plaintiff, given that he was the personal representative of her estate.
The complaint asserted the defendant raped her and beat her so severely that she was in a coma for an extended period of time. Even after she emerged from the coma, she had to endure several months of rehabilitation, during which she was unable to attend to her personal affairs. She alleged that because of the actions of the defendant, she suffered, pain, suffering and humiliation, both past and future, for which she was entitled to monetary damages from the defendant.
The defendant,via his attorney, admitted the allegations in his answer to the complaint.
While the civil lawsuit was pending, the defendant was convicted in the criminal case of three felony charges. Based on his lengthy past record, he was sentenced to a mandatory 99 years in prison.
Subsequently, a hearing was held in which the defendant’s attorney acknowledged the defendant had been convicted of the crimes on which the civil case was based. However, the defendant, testifying by phone, disagreed on this basic point.
The plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment. The district court initially denied the request because it was not accompanied by an affidavit or copy of the criminal conviction, and was therefore an unsupported allegation.
Later, the defense lawyer agreed to stipulate to the conviction for rape and assault, and the court granted a summary judgment to the plaintiff on the grounds of liability, ordering the defendant to pay $150,000, plus interest, attorney’s fees and other costs.
The defendant later appealed on the ground the evidence used to find him liable (i.e., the criminal conviction) was not sufficient because he was in the process of appealing it, and had been found guilty but mentally ill.
The court disagreed, noting a criminal conviction for a violent crime has a collateral estoppel effect in a subsequent civil action that relies on the same material facts. In other words, the criminal conviction was conclusive proof of facts being weighed in the civil court.
The state supreme court said the fact of criminal conviction was not disputed by the defense lawyer, and further, the pending appeal was irrelevant. If the conviction were to be successfully challenged, the defendant could have filed a motion to vacate the civil case judgment. But at the time of his civil case appeal, he was not successful in his criminal appeal.
Civil cases that intersect with criminal cases should be handled with great care by an experienced injury lawyer who can formulate an effective strategy for success.
Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
Lane v. Ballot, July 25, 2014, Alaska Supreme Court
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England v. Brianas – Domestic Violence Victim Had No Duty to Reveal Past, June 24, 2014, Hollywood Injury Lawyer Blog