Effects Of Criminal Conviction On Later Civil Action

In some instances a crime will also result in a civil lawsuit for damages.  Examples include drunk driving criminal matters that became motor vehicle accident or motorcycle accident claims and criminal assaults and batteries that lead to a money damages lawsuit for civil assault and battery.  But what are the effects of a guilty plea or conviction in the underlying criminal action?

If there’s an actual criminal trial, a conviction by a court or jury will result in automatic liability against that person in a later civil lawsuit.  So if a criminal jury finds a defendant guilty of battery stemming from a fight, that criminal defendant will later automatically lose a civil money damages case brought by the victim of the fight.  The criminal defendant, having already been found guilty in criminal court, does not get the opportunity to re-argue liability in a later civil lawsuit.  That will be a “damages only” case.

The same is true for guilty pleas.  A person cannot plead guilty to an offense in a criminal case and then later contest responsibility in a civil lawsuit.  The guilty plea is the criminal defendant’s admission that that person committed a crime, for example battery during a fight.  The law does not allow someone to admit wrongdoing in a criminal case but then deny responsibility in a civil lawsuit.

The purpose of this rule is to prevent re-litigation of the same point and prevent people from taking up the courts’ time and resources with a guilty plea or unsuccessful criminal defense, and then using more of the courts’ resources for a do-over on an issue for which a guilty plea has already been entered or a criminal trial lost.  Another reason for the rule is to prevent the possibility of true tribunals — one criminal, the other civil — from reaching conflicting decisions.

Of course, conflicting results can still happen if someone is found not guilty by a criminal jury but liable by a civil jury, O.J. Simpson being the prime example of that situation.  A person found not guilty at a criminal trial can still be sued for money damages in a later civil action; this is a one-way rule that only gives guilty verdicts and pleas “preclusive effect” in a later civil case and provides no special protection from a civil suit after a not guilty decision.

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