Defending commercial vehicle accident civil claims with companion criminal litigation: A balancing act

Legal Alert from MG+M The Law Firm.

When trucking or commercial vehicle accidents occur, there is a substantial likelihood of property damage, personal injury, and potentially catastrophic harm to drivers, passengers, or pedestrians. When there is a question of fault involved, competing interests between the injured parties, the insurance carriers, and law enforcement will undoubtedly arise. A driver and his employer may face both civil and criminal litigation contemporaneously. Therefore, counsel for any trucking company and that company’s driver must carefully consider their defense strategy immediately following any accident to protect the varying interests of all involved.

Criminal charges arising from trucking or commercial vehicle accidents can range from minor to severe, varying from marked lane violations, speeding, exceeding allowable weight limits, to vehicular homicide charges. By way of example, MG+M attorneys defended a trucking operator (and parent corporation) when a driver inadvertently struck a tow truck operator assisting a disabled vehicle on the Massachusetts Turnpike, resulting in the death of the tow truck operator. The Commonwealth charged the driver with motor vehicle homicide by negligent driving, among other charges, and shortly thereafter, representatives on behalf of the deceased tow truck driver filed a civil complaint against him and his employer (for vicarious liability) alleging wrongful death as well. The civil case resolved with a successful mediation with no personal or excess exposure. Diligent and careful cooperation between the civil and criminal defense teams beginning from the time of crash led to this favorable outcome.

As MG+M’s first-hand experience demonstrates, the best protection for the interests of the driver and company arises from the criminal and civil defense team working together as soon as possible to align the parties’ defenses and to assess all available evidence. While it is anticipated that police and other governmental teams will respond to a trucking accident, it is imperative the driver and/or corporation retain counsel as quickly as possible so that representatives can visit the scene. Defendants should reasonably anticipate that reports from the scene, as well as accident reconstruction and other investigative reports, will become evidence in both civil and criminal cases.

Typically, criminal cases against a driver will proceed before a civil trial, and the outcome of a criminal case can have significant implications in the civil matter. If a judge or jury convicts the driver in a criminal proceeding, the chances of successfully defending a civil case lessen. Practically speaking, much of the criminal evidence is not likely to be available until the criminal case resolves. Therefore, the criminal and civil defense attorneys need to communicate about the defendant’s case, share concerns when they exist, and share non-privileged documents and evidence where appropriate. In addition, to the extent the civil proceeding is pushed forward while the criminal matter is pending, significant time must be set aside to assist in discovery responses and to prepare for deposition so that the driver and trucking company’s rights are not negatively impacted.

Unfortunately, when trucking accidents occur, there are competing interests. The best way to protect your driver and corporation is to ensure counsel is well versed on the details of your fleet, your corporate policies and practices, and is ready to deploy to protect your business.