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Watching the detectives – the relevance of criminal proceedings to securing damages in a civil claim

Posted: 08/10/2021

Road traffic accident cases for victims of serious injuries often involve two distinct legal processes. While the personal injuries team at Penningtons Manches Cooper will assist the injured client in pursuing a claim for damages as a civil claim, the police can decide to bring a criminal prosecution against the driver responsible for the accident. While these two processes are separate, the criminal proceedings may well assist the civil claim in a number of ways.

Relevance of a criminal conviction

As a matter of law, a conviction for a motoring offence arising out of an accident does not necessarily determine civil liability. That is the theory, but in practice if an offence is relevant (such as careless or dangerous driving), it will generally assist the civil claim considerably. Conversely, absence of a criminal conviction does not mean that a civil claim will fail. The principle reason for this is that there are different standards of proof in criminal and civil proceedings.

Standard of proof

In order for a criminal conviction to succeed, the Crown Prosecution Service (the lawyers acting on behalf of the police) must prove criminal guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, which is a far higher standard than in a civil claim where liability (negligence, that is fault) has to be proved on the balance of probabilities. Liability can therefore be established if ‘it is more likely than not that the accident was caused by the defendant’s negligent driving’.

It therefore follows that if a defendant driver is convicted of a relevant offence (where the standard of proof is higher than in civil cases), it will be easier to secure an admission of liability in civil cases.

Police evidence

Where the police attend the scene of a road traffic accident, they will take statements from the drivers and, if not too seriously hurt, the injured claimant, as well as any other independent witnesses. The police accident report book may also include a sketch scene of the accident showing the location of the parties involved. In cases where the claimant is seriously injured (or killed), the police evidence may well include photographs, detailed plans, a vehicle examiner’s report, and an accident construction report. All of this will be helpful to the lawyers investigating the claim. The downside is that the police will not release any of this evidence until the conclusion of any criminal proceedings, and consequently this can represent a delay in the claim if liability is not admitted at an early stage.

Emma’s case and our detective work

Emma, a pedestrian in London, sustained serious injuries while she was crossing the road. She was struck by a motorcyclist. She lost consciousness at the scene and has no recollection of either the accident itself or being taken to hospital where she was diagnosed with a head injury and multiple fractures. The accident occurred at a time she was planning to launch a new business which was in its fledgling stages.

Emma instructed Penningtons Manches Cooper to pursue a claim for damages for very serious injuries and the understandable significant financial losses suffered as a result. Our first port of call was to request the police accident report.

The report was not very helpful. There were no witnesses at the scene other than the motorcyclist who told the police that Emma walked straight out in front of her and there was nothing he could have done to avoid her. Conscious of the obligation to prove an offence beyond reasonable doubt, the police took no action and were happy to release the report to us. It was time to do our own detective work. Together with the client we:

  • attended the scene of the accident. It was revealing in a number of ways, not least that it confirmed the accident occurred on a pedestrian crossing controlled by lights;
  • knocked on doors for witnesses and also checked for the existence of any CCTV footage of the accident;
  • spoke to the local press who reported the accident, and they put us in touch with witnesses who came forward;
  • took statements from witnesses who were able to confirm that Emma was established on the crossing with a green light in her favour, that the motorcyclist was travelling at considerable speed and crossed through a red light, and that he almost hit another pedestrian that was also on the crossing at the time.

While the lawyers for the insurers of the motorcyclist refused to accept liability (and continued to suggest that Emma was to blame for the accident), our detective work gave us the confidence to continue with the claim. After independent expert evidence was secured in orthopaedic surgery, plastic surgery, neurology and neuro-psychology, the defendants agreed to a significant settlement for the claimant less than two years after the accident. A great result for Emma, and only possible because of diligent detective work.

There are great lessons to be learnt from ‘watching the detectives’.

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

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