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How Can a Criminal Case Affect the Outcome of a Civil Case in Massachusetts?

In this video blog, we discuss the effects that a criminal case can have on a civil matter with a guest attorney, Rick Sinnott, who has a significant background in both criminal and civil matters.

We first discuss an example involving a vehicular homicide resulting in an impending criminal case, which at the same time leads to a civil suit. Thus, there are parallel criminal and civil actions. Attorney Sinnott explains that the criminal case can work in favor of the plaintiff’s attorney in the civil case. First, he cites the doctrines of res judicata/collateral estoppel. This can be very beneficial for the civil case because if the criminal case has resolved with a finding of guilt, that should have conclusive effect on the civil matter. After all, the standard in the criminal case is higher– reasonable doubt– and if a determination of guilt has already been made, then surely the civil case standard of preponderance of the evidence has been met. (Conversely, if the defendant was found not guilty, that finding will not have any preclusive effect in the civil case nor will it be permitted into evidence. I tell clients to think of the O.J. Simpson case, where a criminal jury found him not guilty but that finding had no bearing on a civil jury which found Simpson liable.)

If the two cases– the criminal and civil cases– are going on simultaneously, as is usually the case, the defendant in the civil case will plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer any questions. However, that need not interrupt the flow of discovery. A very useful source will be the police investigation. On numerous occasions, I have very happily used much of the criminal investigation to advantage in the civil case. It is a deep reservoir of information.

In our video blog we discuss filing a public records request with the police department for the records related to the plaintiff’s accident. However, as noted by Attorney Sinnott, there is little enforcement of the public records request law in Massachusetts. He states that if the police department refuses to comply with such a request, then the request must be sent to the Secretary of State’s office and then to the Attorney General’s office, both of which have been reluctant to intervene. I have found that the plaintiff’s attorney will nevertheless acquire enough information to proceed very successfully on the civil case.

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