Managing Parallel Criminal and Civil Proceedings for Personal Injury Claims

In many cases in which criminal charges arise, it may also be possible for an individual litigant to bring civil claims alleging personal injuries and damages.  Thus, for instance, while the state is investigating whether a defendant committed a DUI that resulted in the death of another driver, the family of the deceased driver may also contemplate a wrongful death or personal injury claim against the offender. But what happens when the two cases are filed simultaneously? May private parties engage in discovery, including interviewing witnesses and obtaining important evidence, while a criminal investigation and prosecution are still ongoing? The Kentucky Supreme Court recently addressed this issue in a case, Lehmann v. Hon. Susan Gibson.

The facts of Lehmann are somewhat disturbing but lead to a larger issue for personal injury plaintiffs.  Lehmann was a former ordained pastor with the Assembly of God churches.  He was accused of sexually assaulting three young girls within his ministry and was indicted for sodomy and sexual assault. Shortly thereafter, the three victims also filed a civil lawsuit against Lehman and various entities associated with the Assembly of God, alleging personal injuries based on similar factual circumstances, including the assault. While Lehmann responded to the civil complaint, the Trinity Chapel Assembly of God moved to dismiss the civil action or, in the alternative, to halt civil discovery in the case while the criminal proceedings were ongoing. Other Assembly of God entities joined the lawsuit, seeking to stay discovery. Finally, the Commonwealth of Kentucky also intervened, requesting that discovery be stayed until the criminal investigation was completed in order to protect its prosecution of Lehman and promote justice and fairness.

The trial court ultimately agreed with the Assembly of God entities and the Commonwealth, holding that a stay of discovery in the civil case was appropriate because otherwise Lehmann would be given access to witnesses and documents that he could not receive in the criminal matter. The court determined that in the interests of justice, Lehman should not have access to such information outside the bounds of the criminal rules.

In response, Lehmann filed a writ of mandamus seeking to have the trial court order vacated and overturned. The Court of Appeals denied his request, and Lehmann appealed to the Supreme Court of Kentucky.  The Supreme Court denied Lehmann’s writ, finding that there was a good basis for the trial court’s order.  Specifically, the Supreme Court noted that while civil cases favor exceptionally broad discovery, criminal discovery is much more limited.  For instance, criminal defendants may depose only those witnesses unavailable for trial, while civil defendants may depose a much broader range of witnesses. Accordingly, the Court noted that there is frequently good cause to impose a stay of civil discovery in order to keep criminal defendants from “side-stepping” the limitations on criminal discovery through civil proceedings.

What does this mean for personal injury plaintiffs?  When considering whether to file a civil lawsuit, it is important to evaluate any pending criminal charges based on the facts and circumstances of your case. The standard and concerns set forth by the Kentucky Supreme Court are similar to those relied upon by state and federal courts throughout the country and are likely to be applied in your case as well.   If there are pending criminal proceedings against the defendant that you allege has caused you harm, you may find that your civil proceedings are halted and stayed while awaiting the resolution of those criminal matters.

An experienced personal injury attorney like Eric Beasley can help you evaluate the impact that criminal proceedings may have on your case and assist you in weighing the benefits of waiting until criminal charges are resolved against any civil statutes of limitations that may apply.  Mr. Beasley has assisted personal injury victims throughout Tennessee in bringing civil claims and is available to answer your questions. For more information, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Personal Injury Claims Resulting From Home Construction Defects – Who Is Liable?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 18, 2015.

Making the Case For Punitive Damages in Tennessee – What’s Required Under the Law, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 22, 2015

Laws An Accident Attorney in Tennessee Knows That Can Help Your Case, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 24, 2014.