The Relationship between a Criminal Conviction and Civil Liability in Georgia
An issue that often confuses personal injury victims and families of those who have suffered wrongful death is the relationship between criminal and civil court proceedings arising out of motor vehicle accidents. While criminal charges for vehicular homicide caused by an intoxicated driver is the most common scenario where this issue arises, it can also be caused by other forms of reckless driving, such as street racing that results in criminal prosecution for causing serious injury or a fatality.
The fundamental difference between the criminal case and civil case is that a criminal prosecution focuses on punishment in the form of incarceration, fines and other penalties. Injury victims are not generally compensated for their injuries through criminal trials or plea agreements. By contrast, civil lawsuits that result in a settlement or verdict will address whether the defendant should pay monetary compensation to the victim for injuries caused by the defendant's negligent, reckless or intentional misconduct that causes foreseeable injury or death.
Although criminal and civil legal proceedings accomplish different goals, a civil claim for damages can be aided significantly by a guilty verdict or guilty plea in a criminal prosecution. If a drunk driver is prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter after hitting a pedestrian while driving drunk, for example, a guilty plea or jury verdict will make the process of imposing civil liability easier. Because the burden of proof in a criminal case of "beyond a reasonable doubt" is higher than the "preponderance of the evidence" standard in a civil lawsuit, the criminal finding of guilt can essentially establish both fault and causation in the wrongful death civil case.
Because the certified record of conviction of vehicular homicide can be introduced in the civil wrongful death lawsuit, our experienced Atlanta wrongful death attorneys will consider waiting as a strategy matter until the criminal case has concluded before proceeding with the civil lawsuit. Even if a conviction is not obtained in the criminal case because of the exacting burden of proof, the criminal case will provide a preview of the types of evidence and legal theories that the defendant may utilize in a subsequent civil case.
While the example we considered above involves wrongful death caused by an intoxicated driver, it is worth mentioning how the situation might differ in the case of a victim that suffers bodily injury rather than death. While the issues of fault and causation may still be established by the conviction in criminal court, the insurance company for the at-fault driver typically will focus its defense on disputing the severity of the victim's injuries. These cases essentially focus entirely on the issue of damages so we routinely work with economic experts, medical experts, vocational experts and others who may strengthen our position regarding the appropriate measure of financial compensation.
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If you or someone close to you is injured in a car crash involving a driver who is convicted of a criminal violation like DUI, our Georgia motor vehicle accident attorneys at Montlick and Associates are available to provide effective legal representation to those throughout all of Georgia and the Southeast, including all smaller cities and rural areas in the state. No matter where you are located our attorneys are just a phone call away, and we will even come to you. Call us 24 hours a day/7 days a week for your Free Consultation at 1-800-LAW-NEED (1-800-529-6333). You can also visit us online at www.montlick.com and use our Free Case Evaluation Form or 24-hour Live Online Chat.