I recently read a New York Times article about a rigging contractor who had been charged with manslaughter and negligent homicide after a crane collapsed, killing seven people. The contractor was found not guilty of the criminal charges, but is he also facing a civil lawsuit filed by the families of the persons killed. What I find interesting about the article is that the persons suing civilly are not particularly concerned that the contractor was acquitted.
This is probably why the plaintiffs are unconcerned — the personal injury lawsuit was filed against multiple parties including the rigging contractor, the City of New York, the owner of the crane, the building owner, and the general contractor. The civil litigants were concerned that if the rigging contractor, who was the only one charged with possible criminal negligence, was found guilty, then in a subsequent civil jury trial the other defendants could point to this verdict to limit their potential liability.
This construction lawsuit raises several issues about the affects of criminal liability when you have an adjacent civil matter. A guilty criminal verdict against the contractor would have been admissible in the civil trial and could have increased the contractor’s level of financial responsibility. In that scenario, there could very well be a civil verdict with the contractor being found 75% at fault and the remaining 25% of fault would be split between the other defendants. The civil litigants would then have to recover 75% of their damages from the contractor. My guess is that the contractor had limited insurance available. As such, the civil litigants were looking for additional responsible parties to cover their entire damages.
Many people have heard of the term “deep pockets” which refers to parties that could be responsible for an accident and also have a lot of insurance money available to pay claims. It is best for a civil litigant with serious injuries to search for the deep pocket defendant. It should be noted that it is not right or ethical to pursue a “deep pocket” defendant unless they have potential liability. I would never advocate pursuing a defendant just because they have more insurance than another party. However, in this particular New York case, there were multiple deep pocket defendants who would have benefited from a guilty verdict for the contractor because it would limit their potential liability. It is always interesting to note that when one of the defendants has potential criminal responsibility, that criminal responsibility can be used in multiple ways in the civil trial.