It often seems like the world of criminal law and civil law are separate and distinct. They often use separate judges, have separate laws, and carry separate penalties. But although there is certainly a difference between the two, they intersect more than you might imagine.
A civil or personal injury lawyer does not need to be an expert on our criminal system, but certainly understanding how criminal law affects a personal injury case can be the difference between recovering for injuries or not recovering.
Traffic and Auto Accidents
Although we use the term criminal law, most traffic citations are not criminal violations. Outside of accidents that may be particularly reckless, or which may involve a DUI, most daily car accidents where someone runs a stop sign or rear ends another car do not involve the criminal penal system.
Still, law enforcement officers are involved, and tickets may be given out to those who an officer believes may be at fault for an accident. At hearings over traffic infractions, judges or magistrates may determine someone’s fault for an accident. We can think of these violations as being more than civil cases (in fact, they are often classified into a category called “non-criminal” offenses).
After a car accident, many people believe that an accident report that finds a party negligent, and thus responsible for an injury, will be the tell tale proof of the case. Many are surprised to learn that in fact, accident reports filled out by law enforcement officers are inadmissible in civil personal injury trials.
There are two main reasons for this. The legislature believes that the incident report may be too persuasive to a jury—jurors will believe what an accident report says, regardless of any other evidence at trial. Also the legislature wants officers to be free to write their findings on reports, without worry that what they write will be questioned or scrutinized in court.
Note that there is no restriction on an officer who investigates an accident actually testifying at a personal injury trial. However, in many cases, the officer’s memory of an accident that occurred years prior, will be rough and vague.
If You Get the Ticket
This all presupposes that the accident says that the other party is to blame. What if it says you are to blame? Officers are not perfect, and their on-scene investigation is not a full blown trial. As a result, in many cases, officers may find someone at fault for an accident who is not at fault, or else determine that an accident occurred in a way that it did not.
If you get a ticket for an accident that you did not cause, you may want to be careful before you just pay the ticket. Often, simply paying a ticket related to an accident report that says something inaccurate, can make it difficult for you to later say in a personal injury trial that the accident report was wrong.
Even though the fact someone received a citation may be inadmissible at trial, it can affect how an insurance company, or opposing counsel, evaluates your case. Insurance companies that see someone make a claim for injuries who received a ticket, are usually hesitant to make any meaningful settlement offers before a trial.
Also, although the fact that a citation was issued may be inadmissible, the fact that someone may have violated a law may be admissible. For example, although someone could not admit the fact that a driver received a ticket for reckless driving, they could seek to present to the jury that someone was driving 60mph in a school zone and that doing so is a legal violation.
Another sadly common area where criminal law meets civil law, is regarding DUIs. Someone who is injured by a drunk driver may be eligible to receive punitive damages from a jury.
Of course, again, evidence of a citation may be inadmissible, but an officer’s testimony of the accident, along with medical records, may be able to demonstrate that someone was driving under the influence. Blood and urine tests, along with most other tests used to determine someone’s blood alcohol level, are admissible in a civil personal injury trial.
Even if an alcohol level is not above the legal limit to constitute a DUI, a jury can consider the fact that someone had been drinking before an accident when considering who was responsible for an accident.
Crimes May Have Civil Liability
In many cases, crimes occur, which may give rise to civil liability. For example, someone who is mugged in a mall parking lot may think of the event as solely a criminal matter, not realizing that the mall may have civil liability for a failure to provide adequate security or lighting to avert criminal activity. Someone who is attacked in their apartment may not think of whether the landlord has provided adequate security, working locks, or safety personnel.
Certainly, nobody can guarantee that criminals will not strike. But business owners are under an obligation to provide a minimum level of security and take reasonable safeguards—especially in areas with higher crime levels.
This was just demonstrated in the Erin Andrews case, the ESPN reporter who was spied on by a peeping tom in an adjacent room. Although the tom committed a crime, Andrews successfully sued the hotel, alleging they should have known that she was in danger when the tom asked which room she was in, asked to be in a room next to hers, and had the request granted.
There is a lot to consider when analyzing a personal injury case, including how the criminal justice system may hurt or hinder a case. If you are a crime victim, make sure all responsible parties are looked into for possible personal injury liability. Call the injury attorneys of Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation to discuss your case.