How a truck driver's pending criminal case affects a truck accident lawsuit:
Many commercial vehicle accidents are followed by the police arresting the driver. If you have been injured in such an accident, this is great news on two levels. Not only is the driver who injured being held accountable by the criminal justice system, but the criminal trial can help your civil case, provided you have an experienced, excellent truck accident attorney who can use the criminal conviction as leverage in your injury claim.
While it may be frustrating and a bit confusing to people unfamiliar with how the law works, we really have two justice systems, not one. The first is the criminal system, which determines whether our actions have harmed society. The second is the civil system, which holds people accountable monetarily for the injuries they have caused to individuals.
In this article, we'll explain how what happens to the truck driver in his criminal case will affect your injury or wrongful death case, and how the evidence the prosecutors use against the truck driver can also be used by your injury attorneys to help in the lawsuit.
Questions answered on this page:
- If the state is prosecuting the truck driver who injured me, does that mean I cannot file a lawsuit?
- How does a criminal case against the truck driver who injured me affect my truck accident lawsuit?
- Will my injury attorney use evidence from the criminal case to benefit my claim?
- Will it hurt my case if the truck driver is acquitted in criminal court?
How a criminal trial can affect your lawsuit against the trucking company.
Some people may mistakenly believe that the main benefit of the truck driver who injured you facing criminal charges is that it means the police and district attorney's office will investigate the truck driver and put him in jail first, and then they'll help the victims seek compensation. It doesn't work that way. Criminal charges are brought on behalf of the state, and the state only cares about criminal accountability, not compensation.
To obtain compensation for injuries or the death of a loved one, victims must turn to an attorney in the private sector. However, good personal injury lawyers know how to play nice with the prosecutor, which ultimately leads to a sharing of evidence. You see, our lawyers can get access to evidence that the police and prosecutor have no authority to obtain, and there are certain types of evidence that the police can get that we cannot. So working hand-in-hand with the prosecution is a smart move that good injury lawyers make.
If you think back to high school civics, you may recall that our Constitution forbids "double jeopardy." This means that you cannot be charged for the same crime twice. Even if new evidence emerges years later that prove your guilt in a crime, if the jury said your were not guilty at the end of a trial, they state cannot charge you again for that crime. The main reason for this prohibition is that in almost every way, the prosecution has the advantage in a criminal case. If you couple that advantage, with the ability to see your legal strategy, which they saw in the first trial, it would create a system far too heavily weighted in prosecutors' favor, and they'd just try a case against you over and over until they eventually won. Double jeopardy laws prevent that.
However, since civil matters are different from criminal cases, it's not double jeopardy. Just because a truck driver is charged criminally, does not mean that you lose the right to pursue a case civilly. In this instance, there really is the possibility that there will be two trials dealing with the same event, one to determine criminal guilt and one to determine civil liability. While the issues raised in each case are not exactly the same, there is enough overlap that is allows our attorney to not only see how the evidence and witnesses play out before a jury, but to analyze the defenses strategy. In essence, we get to look through the trucking company's playbook before they know anything about how we intend to pursue your claim. This can only help your case.
For example, here are some advantages we gained from watching a criminal trial of a the driver who hit our client a few years ago:
- The prosecutor presented information to a grand jury to persuade them to indict a truck driver who we were suing in relation to the same accident. By seeing how the grand jury chose not to indict him, that told us that the evidence the authorities gathered was not terribly compelling. We concluded that we needed to shore up who was at fault by bringing in our own accident reconstructionist to prove the other driver was liable.
- Several key witnesses who testified in a truck driver's criminal case had criminal pasts, but they came across as quite believable. We made sure we put them on our own witness lists for trial, whereas conventional lawyer wisdom would have suggested that we eschew them because of their criminal records for fear that a jury wouldn't believe them.
- The driver's blood-alcohol content was substantially higher at the time of the incident than we'd even begun to imagine. We learned this because the authorities got a warrant for a blood draw, which is one of few things that an attorney really can't do (since we're not called in to investigate until, usually, days after the accident).
- The driver testified and we believe lied on the stand, which gave us an idea of what we could expect in the civil case against him, and it created an opportunity to catch him in a lie.
You can see that not all of the developments appeared to helpful to our client's case, at least at first glance. For example, the fact that the key witnesses had criminal records meant that their credibility could be questioned at trial. Further, we learned that the police had not done the best job in their initial investigation. Even if these were not ideal developments from our client's perspective, at least we got to find out about them in front of another jury that had nothing to do with our client's claim. After the trial was over, we submitted a Freedom Of Information Act request to the District Attorney's Office and received copies of almost all the evidence they had. We were able to turn around and use it in our case against the negligent truck driver. In addition, we now understood which witnesses worked well before a jury and knew exactly where the holes in the police investigation were. We took that knowledge and directed our own investigation towards filling those gaps.
Since the criminal case usually gets underway (not in its entirety, but all of the pretrial hearings) before the civil case is complete, it gives us a chance to snoop on the people we're suing and see how they'll do when they're in the hot seat.
Since we would have conducted our own investigation of the accident anyway, it is likely we would have ended up with the same evidence on that end. However, the difference between thinking that you know how a jury will react to a witness and knowing how they will react is invaluable. That knowledge made our client's case that much stronger.
The outcome of the criminal trial does not end the case against the truck driver.
To get you the compensation you need, we have to win our case in civil court. The criminal case may track closely in some ways with what we have to prove, but it's ultimately a whole new ballgame, a new ballgame where we have seen how the other side plays.
If the truck driver who injured you was convicted in their criminal trial, that is admissible in the civil proceedings. It is no longer merely our interpretation of the evidence, but an indisputable fact that the truck driver was convicted of doing something illegal. Even if the trucker is found not guilty by a jury in a criminal case, that does not really hurt your civil case. For one the burden of proof in a criminal case is much, much higher. In addition, our attorneys will have already seen what arguments the defense made to get an acquittal, so our attorneys will be in a better position to refute them.
At this point you might be thinking, "If the truck driver has already been convicted of a crime in my case, then I'm guaranteed to win my civil claim. Why does it matter who my attorney is?" Two things prevent a conviction from making your civil case against the driver open-and-shut:
- Many negligent truck drivers simply cannot afford decent criminal defense attorneys. As a result, they may be rightly convicted, but perhaps they didn't put up much of a fight in the criminal process. But their civil defense is paid for by their insurance carrier. When potentially millions of dollars in insurance money are at stake, the insurance company will hire extremely capable lawyers to defend the driver against your civil case.
- Criminal cases are good at showing that the driver broke a law, but they are not good for determining who was at fault for the incident. You may be thinking, "If the truck driver is convicted, doesn't that mean they're at fault?" Again, this is an example of where criminal law and civil law sort of overlap, but they are not exactly the same thing. Imagine that a truck driver was drunk and a passenger car blew through a red light and t-boned the truck, killing the driver of the car. The truck driver may indeed be found guilty of drinking and driving, but that doesn't mean that he was at fault for the other driver's death. In the scenario, the other driver is responsible for his own death, and it's just a coincidence that the truck driver was drunk. So, while a criminal conviction can indeed help bolster your civil case, it may not help at all. This is where an experienced lawyer's discretion can really make a difference.
- Also, criminal cases are not good for illustrating the impact that the accident had on your life. By that we mean that the issue of who's responsible might not be in dispute, but it will still require an experienced truck accident attorney to prove how much money you're entitled to.
Will you trust just any attorney with your truck accident case?
Just because the truck driver who injured you is facing criminal charges does not mean that you can take your civil case for granted. With 25 years of experience throughout Texas and Arkansas handling truck accident cases, our attorneys have seen most everything trucking companies and their insurance companies have to throw at them. If you've been hurt or lost a loved one to a negligent truck driver, the criminal process isn't enough. Call (855) 326-0000 now for a free consultation.
To learn more about other factors that affect your truck accident case, you may be interested in:
- Fatal Truck Accidents and Texas Law
- Who Is Really to Blame for Single Vehicle Truck Accidents
- Holding Trucking Companies Accountable for Accidents Caused by Loose or Dangerous Cargo