How Do Criminal Charges Affect a Personal Injury Case?

FAQ: Are a police officer’s charges important to the outcome of a personal injury case?

Many times our personal injury clients are upset when the police officer does not place criminal charges against the driver our clients feel caused the auto accident, or when the officer does place criminal charges but they are dismissed at traffic court. Usually, however, it has no real effect on their personal injury claim under Virginia law. The reason is that, if their personal injury claim went to trial, the jury would never know whether the police officer charged anyone or not, and if the officer did, the jury would never know what the outcome of the charge was, either.

To many people, that sounds crazy. This seems like important information that a jury should know. There are, however, very good reasons why information regarding criminal charges is not admissible at trial.

Car, Automobile Accident, Car Accident Charges, Criminal Charges

One of the questions at the trial of a personal injury claim is whether the defendant (the person who has been sued) is at fault in causing the auto accident.  In legal, terms, the question is whether the defendant was negligent; that is, did they do something wrong that caused the accident. This is an issue the jury is supposed to decide based on the witnesses and evidence that is presented to them.  Usually, the witnesses are questioned and cross-examined by attorneys for both sides, and the jury will hear a lot more information than the police officer had available at the scene of the accident.

To charge or not to charge: What does that mean to your case?

Whether or not to charge someone who is involved in a motor vehicle accident is a decision that the police officer makes, based on their opinion and judgment. In a claim for personal injuries, we would not want the jury to substitute the police officer’s opinion for their own.  If the criminal charges were admissible, the jury might be improperly swayed by the police officer’s opinion.  Similarly, the judge’s decision at traffic court is based on the evidence presented to the judge during what is usually a hearing lasting less than 15 minutes. In a claim for personal injuries, we would not want the jury to substitute the traffic court judge’s opinion for their own.  The effort and expense that a defendant might make to defend himself against a traffic court charge that carries a fine of fewer than one hundred dollars may be very different from the effort and expense a defendant might make to defend himself from an injury lawsuit for thousands of dollars arising from the same accident.  Surely it would not be fair for a jury to be influenced by the decision of a traffic court judge to convict of a traffic charge when that decision was based on much less evidence than the jury had to consider in the injury case.

On the other hand, if the charges were dismissed by the traffic court judge, it would be unfair to the injured claimant (the plaintiff) to let the injury case jury hear that.  The standard of proof in a criminal traffic case is beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high standard.  In a civil claim for personal injuries, the standard is much lower; the claimant must prove the defendant was negligent by a preponderance of the evidence.  This is sometimes described as the greater weight of the evidence, or 51% or more. Surely it would be unfair for a jury in a personal injury trial to be influenced by the decision of a traffic court judge to dismiss a charge when the standard of proof is so much higher to support a conviction in traffic court than the standard of proof to support a finding of negligence in the personal injury case.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for jurors in a personal injury trial to have questions while they are discussing a verdict.  One of the most common questions jurors ask in a case like this, where there is a question as to who is at fault, is whether the responding officer charged anyone with a traffic violation. Typically, members of a jury with such a question will write the question out and a bailiff will deliver it to the presiding judge.  At that point, the judge will inform the lawyers for the parties that the jury has a question.  Typically the judge will read the question to the lawyers and give them an opportunity to express any preference they may have as to how the judge should respond.

For a variety of reasons, it is uncommon for a judge to give the jurors a substantive answer to their questions.  The reasons for not answering this question about whether anyone was charged in the accident should now be clear to you.  In every instance I can recall, the judge will ask the jury to return to the courtroom, read their question into the written record of the trial and tell the jury that they must base their verdict only on the evidence that was presented during the trial.  Assuming (as is almost always the case) that no evidence on traffic charges was presented during the trial, the judge will instruct the jurors that they should not speculate about such matters and base their verdict only on the evidence presented.

While an answer like this is probably the legally correct thing for a judge to say, it’s probably not very satisfying for the jurors.  The reason a judge won’t answer a question about who an officer may have charged is that, as we have seen, the answer will not help the jury properly decide the issue of fault.  There is also the danger that a jury wrestling with a difficult liability case will choose not to decide that issue, substituting the officer’s judgment as to who may have been at fault for their own.

For instance…

Imagine a situation where two drivers collide in an intersection controlled by a traffic light.  Each driver tells the responding officer that his light was green and there are no other witnesses.  Often in these circumstances, the officer will charge no one.  Assuming that the traffic light is working properly, the decision not to charge anyone does not mean no one is at fault. One of the two drivers ran a red light.  However, the officer has no way of knowing or proving which of the two drivers ran the red light. Less often, the officer will charge both drivers with disregarding a red light. Again assuming that the light is working properly, the fact that both drivers were charged does not mean that both drivers ran a red light.  One of them had a green light.

Sometimes the police officer will charge only one or the other driver with disregarding the red light.  This decision may be based on the police officer’s impression at the scene. But there may an eyewitness to the accident who gave their contact information to the person not at fault but the eyewitness may have left the scene before the police officer arrived.  And sometimes one driver may have left the scene by ambulance before the police officer arrives, and the officer may charge that driver based only on talking to the driver who is still at the scene.  In all of these situations, the jury in the injury case could easily be misled by the criminal charges the police officer made or by the outcome at traffic court.