Criminal Cases and Civil Consequences

One of the first questions many lawyers ask a client who has been injured in a car accident is whether any driver was cited for a moving violation or whether criminal charges were brought.  Yet although the underlying facts–whatever  it was that caused a violation to issue or charges to be brought–may be significant and helpful in proving fault, the fact of the violation or charges may not even be admissible in court.

The simple fact that a ticket was issued or charges were brought is legally inadmissible.  Just because charges are brought doesn’t mean the person charged is guilty of anything.  Yet even if a ticket is paid, and sometimes even if a driver pleads guilty, he can still defend against a civil suit for damages.

Most drivers have picked up a moving violation somewhere along the way.  And many drivers who receive a traffic ticket simply pay it without much thought.  And while a traffic violation may reflect a police officer’s judgment about fault involved in an accident, it’s not admissible in a civil case for personal injuries.  The law recognizes that people may choose to pay the ticket rather than take the time to appeal it, even if they don’t think they were at fault.  And so the law says that the fact of payment can’t be used as proof of guilt or fault.  This would apply to most speeding tickets and other traffic violations like running a stop sign or red light.

Even more serious charges can’t necessarily substitute for proof of liability in a civil case.  If the defendant driver is convicted of a crime, such as vehicular homicide or drunk driving, that conviction is not only admissible in a civil personal injury case, it is conclusive and binding.  The defendant can’t contest liability in a civil case arising out of the same incident.

But if the defendant driver pleads guilty, rather than being convicted by a judge or jury, he can still dispute whether he is liable for injuries caused in the accident.  The guilty plea is admissible, but it’s not binding; in other words, liability is not automatic.  The jury in a civil case will hear about the guilty plea, but the defendant will be permitted to explain why he pleaded guilty.  The explanation may not help much, but the defendant will be entitled to give it.

By the way, the same rules would apply to moving violations issued to a driver who is suing as a plaintiff to recover damages for personal injury.   A ticket issued–and even paid–may make no difference at all in the civil case.

So when a lawyer asks about traffic tickets and criminal charges in connection with an automobile accident case, the answer is important.  But many such charges may not automatically carry the day.