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Criminal trials may not determine civil trial outcomes

In past blog posts we've discussed how the outcome of a criminal trial can affect a civil lawsuit in the event of a car accident that causes injury or death. If a driver who caused a car accident is convicted of drunk driving, for example, the attorney of a person injured in that accident may have an easier time proving that the driver negligently caused the injuries and should be forced to compensate the injury sufferer.

There are cases in which a driver who broke the law may not be held civilly liable for an accident victim's injuries. A motorist found to be driving on a suspended license, for example, may not be forced to cover the cost of injuries in an accident merely because he shouldn't have been driving -- especially if the person injured was at fault. In one current case, the attorney of a driver who caused an accident in Lower Pottsgrove Township, Pennsylvania, is arguing that his client may have been negligent, but doesn't deserve to go to prison for vehicular homicide. In suggesting this, he is attempting to save his client from a criminal sentence while putting him at risk of a civil liability.

The fatal Nov. 12 accident killed a 16-year-old boy who was crossing a street. According to police, the driver on trial had been tailgating another driver. Just after the leading driver turned right at an intersection, the tailgating driver swerved around the turning car and hit the boy, killing him.

The driver is accused of lying to authorities by saying his girlfriend was driving at the time. This charge -- and even the fact that he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a previous accident -- may not be enough to hold him civilly liable for the boy's death, but a detective has also testified that the man was speeding and may have been drunk at the time.

The driver's attorney also said during a preliminary hearing that the accident was an instance of "negligent" driving, rather than "reckless." This argument might save the driver from the worst criminal punishment but could also increase his chances of having to compensate the victim's family, if they choose to sue him in civil court for wrongful death. So while a criminal trial may not automatically seal a driver's fate in a civil lawsuit, it can have a significant effect on the outcome.

Source: The Mercury, "Driver accused of fatally striking Lower Pottsgrove teen heads to trial," Frank Otto, Jan. 11, 2013

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