How Does A Criminal Conviction Impact My Accident Case?

One big issue for clients in car and truck accidents – particularly in cases where the injuries are extremely serious or fatal – is whether the at-fault driver is convicted of the traffic offense(s) for which the driver was cited. In wrongful death car accident cases, the clients are usually interested in one more thing: a manslaughter charge.

Accident victims and their families care about this for two fundamental reasons: (1) the desire for some measure of justice and, (2) because they believe it impacts their civil case. But, in most cases, a criminal conviction for conduct relating to a car or truck accident is inadmissible to establish liability in the civil lawsuit stemming from the wrong committed in the accident.

The logic of this escapes me. Maryland courts reason that there is a difference in the parties, objects, issues, procedures, and results in civil and criminal proceeds. But all of these things actually make it harder to get a conviction in a criminal case than a finding of primary negligence (setting aside contributory negligence) in a civil case. I think the real logic is quite practical: most of the time this situation arises in auto accident cases and our courts want defendants to just pay a fine without an admission of guilt in a civil action.

Interestingly and importantly, Maryland seems to have an exception in wrongful death cases. In one 1997 Maryland Court of Appeals opinion (Eagan v. Calhoun), the court allowed the admission of the husband’s guilty plea to manslaughter of his wife into evidence in the wrongful death case, as a judicial admission that the defendant had committed the killing and that the killing constituted voluntary manslaughter. The doctrine of judicial estoppel can also be a weapon in this context to the extent that a court might find that while the conviction is not an admission of liability, the defendant may not be permitted to offer evidence that contradicts the plea. In most liability dispute car accident cases, this makes liability almost a certainty.

Two take-home messages for the Maryland accident lawyer: (1) a criminal conviction for the conduct now subject to a civil lawsuit may not be game/set/match for your liability case on primary or contributory negligence so don’t assume liability is established and, (2) make sure you get a copy of the transcript of the criminal trial if the defendant testified.