Victims of crime have long been allowed to sue the criminal in a civil suit to gain compensation directly from the criminal. However, until now, the victim had to re-present the entire criminal case in the civil litigation. Even though a criminal case has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, crime victims still had to call witnesses in the civil trial to prove that the criminal was responsible. This was not always possible and thus a civil suit could fail even in the teeth of a criminal conviction for the same event. If nothing else it allowed the criminal to argue that he or she was really innocent notwithstanding the conviction.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has abolished that archaic requirement. The Court held that the so-called “mutual element of collateral estoppel” — which required re-litigation of a criminal case in a parallel civil trial — was no longer the law.
It is about time. Tennessee is now in line with the rest of the country.
How does the new rule work?
The criminal in Bowen was convicted of aggravated sexual battery and rape of a child. A civil lawsuit was filed seeking damages against the criminal and several agencies that facilitated a mentoring relationship between the criminal and the victim.
The mother of the victim asked the judge to rule that the criminal’s guilt had been established by the felony conviction and should not be subject to re-litigation in the civil proceeding. The criminal argued that the civil proceedings were separate from the criminal trial and because the child was not a party to the criminal proceeding the criminal should be allowed to advocate in favor of his innocence.
Technically, this is correct because the “complaining” party in a criminal case is only the State of Tennessee and not the actual victim who is but a “mere” witness. Or so the theory goes.
The Supreme Court of Tennessee properly cut through this illusion and found that the so-called mutual collateral estoppel rule would be abandoned.
Where a criminal has had a full and fair opportunity to defend against the charges in a criminal proceeding, a conviction will be deemed conclusive in a companion civil suit involving the same criminal and his or her victim. The victim does not have to re-litigate the issues of guilt in the civil proceeding. In short, a victim of crime may now use the criminal conviction as conclusive evidence establishing liability. The only remaining question becomes one of damages.
The advantages to the crime victim are obvious. The victim no longer has to call the police officers as witnesses and may simply introduce a certified copy of the conviction as conclusive proof against the criminal who is now the subject of companion civil litigation.
While not every criminal has resources to pay for civil judgments, many do. Indeed, some criminals may have liability insurance. Indeed, the criminal could win the lottery or have a big inheritance. Thus, a crime victim may be well-advised to pursue civil damages against the person who victimized the plaintiff. Adjudication of liability is now virtually automatic with the introduction of the felony conviction.
Note that the reverse may also true in limited cases. For example, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-622, provides that a “person who uses force [as permitted by self-defense] …. is immune from civil liability for the use of such force, …. .” Arguably, an acquittal by reason of self-defense may avoid companion civil liability. Indeed, the defendant may now be awarded “reasonable attorney’s fees, court costs, compensation for loss of income, and all expenses incurred by a person in defense of any civil action brought against the person based upon the person’s use of force, if the court finds that the defendant was justified in using such force.”
But don’t wait!
Just because the criminal conviction is conclusive proof of guilt does not mean the crime victim should wait to sue only after the criminal case has concluded. Criminal charges often take years to resolve so the civil case must be filed within the statute of limitation or it is barred forever.
The statute of limitation for most civil cases is one year. However, the statute of limitations is two years where “Criminal charges are brought against any person alleged to have caused or contributed to the injury ( as long as the ) conduct, transaction, or occurrence that gives rise to the cause of action for civil damages is the subject of a criminal prosecution commenced within one (1) year.”
These exceptions are technical and we suggest bringing the civil suit promptly.
What will Change?
The new decision will also have effect on court procedures. Under prior law a criminal faced with a parallel civil suit would not always be entitled to a stay of the civil proceedings until the criminal case was concluded. In light of the new decision by our Supreme Court a stay of civil proceedings is now inevitable given the preclusive effect of a criminal conviction. This may delay a civil proceeding while the criminal case runs its course.
The new decision will also have an effect on civil discovery since a criminal defendant will seek to block discovery in the civil proceeding because it may assist the prosecution in the criminal case. While this is always been the law the tendency now will be to grant a stay of civil proceedings including discovery while the criminal case is proceeding along.
Thus, once there is a criminal conviction the civil suit will move faster. However, given the delays in criminal cases the overall civil suit may be delayed.
What about Misdemeanor Charges?
These new rulings are different, however, where there is only a misdemeanor conviction. The procedural rules dictate that because an individual does not have the same motive to contest a misdemeanor, an adverse adjudication of a misdemeanor is not conclusive proof in a parallel civil proceeding and thus the facts underlying the crime must still be established in a civil proceeding.
However, where the conviction is a felony offense, this new decision will allow a victim to pursue a civil suit against the criminal and not be burdened by an unnecessary evidentiary requirement.
The Impact of the Decision
Because of the new ruling we will see more suits by victims of crime.
The unanswered question is whether collateral parties may be impacted by the conviction. For now, however, this new ruling is of significant benefit to a crime victim. Conversely, the stakes for a person accused of crime are significantly increased since a conviction for a felony will now result in a virtually automatic civil judgment in favor of the crime victim. If you are charged with a crime you should address with your lawyer possible civil actions which might be brought against you.
Read the unanimous opinion in Ms. Bowen ex rel. John Doe, “N” v. William E. Arnold, Jr. et al., authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark.