Understanding How a Criminal Prosecution Affects a Civil Car Accident Lawsuit in Ohio

People who have recently been involved in a Cleveland-area automobile accident frequently have questions regarding their legal rights. Some of these questions may involve the relationship between the criminal or traffic charges filed against the other driver and your rights to file a lawsuit for damages against that driver and others responsible for your injuries and damages.

For instance, is it really necessary to file a lawsuit against an at-fault driver if he or she was arrested or given a ticket as a result of the accident? Won’t the police take care of everything? If the police cite the driver for speeding or violating the law and the police report says that the other driver is at fault, may that finding be used to support your case against the other driver? Because these issues are often complex, you need to get advice from an experienced Ohio personal injury lawyer. Consider the following situation:

Facts of the Case

In a recent case decided by the Cuyahoga County  Court of Appeals, the defendant was a woman who was convicted by a trial court of the crime of leaving the scene of an accident. As part of her conviction and sentence, the trial court  ordered her to pay $2000 in restitution to compensate the victim of her crime for her damages. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court had committed reversible error by entering a finding of guilty without setting forth any factual support for the court’s conclusion, even though she entered a plea of “no contest ( which legally means that she was admitting the facts, but not admitting her guilt).”

The Court of Appeals Holding

The appellate court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case for the purpose of vacating the conviction and discharging the defendant, holding that the defendant should not have been immediately found guilty without an explanation of the circumstances giving rise to the finding of guilt. The court pointed out that the defendant had not explicitly waived her right to the explanation, nor had any offer of facts been made by the prosecution. Because  a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same crime ( This is known as double jeopardy.),  the prosecution did not get a second opportunity to prove its case against her..

Lessons Learned from the Case

First of all, is important to understand the difference between “restitution” in a criminal case and “damages” in a civil case. In a criminal case arising from an auto accident, it is possible – but not always the case – that the defendant will be ordered to pay a certain amount of money to the crime victim. The amount is typically very modest when compared to the amount that could be ordered as full money damages (which compensates the plaintiff for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, property damages, and other losses) in a civil lawsuit.

Furthermore, even if restitution is ordered, the injured party has no legal standing to enforce the court’s order; only the prosecution can do that. This can take a very long time, if it happens at all. In a civil case, the defendant’s insurance company usually satisfies the judgment against him or her within a reasonable amount of time after a verdict is entered or the case is settled. If the defendant is uninsured, the plaintiff may be able to make a claim against his or her own uninsured motorist carrier and/or execute the judgment against the defendant’s assets.

Additionally, there is always the possibility that a defendant’s conviction – and accompanying order of restitution – will be set aside on appeal, as happened here. If the plaintiff in the above case did not file a civil case within the statute of limitations period, they will receive nothing for his or her injuries in the accident.

Contact an Experienced Cleveland Auto Accident Lawyer

If you have been involved in a car or truck accident you need to speak with a knowledgeable Cleveland car accident attorney. Call Rubin Guttman & Associates, L.P.A., at 216-696-4006 for a free consultation.  Because evidence must be preserved and witnesses interviewed as soon as possible, it is important to seek counsel as soon as possible after an accident.

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