The Law Office of Louis Grandelli recently settled a lawsuit for $650,000.00 involving a client who was seriously injured in a car accident, but who also had a history of criminal convictions which presented difficult issues. The incident involved an intersection accident in Staten Island, New York, and our client alleged that the defendant negligently ran the stop sign “T-boning” his vehicle. As a result, the plaintiff sustained serious spinal injuries requiring surgery.
As the case was being prepared for trial, the attorneys for the defendants requested a mediation to explore the possibility of settlement. However, at the mediation, the defense attorneys and the insurance carrier argued that our client would have a tough time convincing a jury of his claims due to prior criminal convictions the client had many years prior to the accident. While some would question why an accident victim’s prior criminal history would be admissible on issues of negligence and monetary damages, as discussed below, the Courts in New York State have traditionally allowed such evidence since it may bear on a witness’ credibility.
The State Courts in New York and the Federal Courts take a slightly different approach on the admissibility of prior criminal convictions. New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR) §4513 provides that a person convicted of a crime is a competent witness, but permits an adversary to cross-examine the witness about his criminal history in an effort to undermine his or her credibility to effect the weight of the testimony.
Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) §609 provides that a witness’ conviction of a serious crime is admissible in a civil case, or at a criminal trial in which the witness is not a defendant, so long as the probative value outweighs the prejudicial effect to the defendant. However, there are limitations for convictions that are more than 10 years old as set forth in the Federal rule.
If this case had gone to trial, our approach would be to bring the prior criminal convictions to the jury’s attention before the defense had the opportunity, thereby taking out the “sting” of the prior bad acts. In such a situation, a potential juror should be questioned as to whether the client’s prior criminal convictions would preclude them from evaluating all of the evidence in the case with an open mind fairly and impartially. As you would expect, some jurors would voluntarily state that it would be difficult for them to be fair and impartial in such a situation which would permit us to the challenge the juror “for cause” and excuse them from hearing the case. However, it’s clearly best to keep such evidence completely out of the case if possible.
In this regard, several years ago, a New York State Supreme Court Judge in Brooklyn was presented with interesting issues in a civil case involving an incident where a masonry wall collapsed, injuring the plaintiff. The defendant-owner of the building moved to exclude references at trial to prior criminal sex convictions. The Supreme Court held that the probative value of the sex convictions, which occurred 27 years earlier, were outweighed by the potential for prejudice. Tripp v. Williams, 959 N.Y.S.2d 412 (2013).
With respect to our case, we relied upon the holding in Tripp v. Williams in support of our argument that our client’s prior criminal convictions were too remote in time and may have been excluded in the sound discretion of the Court. Fortunately, we were able to prevail in this lawsuit resulting in a settlement at the mediation of $650,000.00 to our client’s satisfaction.
If you, or someone you know, has been seriously injured in an accident, please contact our office.