Civil Practice

Convicted Defendants Can Still Contest Liability in Civil Cases

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Martinez also noted the 1997 U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case Federal Insurance v. Potamkin, which found that a plaintiff in civil proceedings could invoke collateral estoppel to preclude the defendant from denying his criminal acts once a criminal defendant had been convicted and sentenced.

Williamson, however, found that the cases the plaintiff cited did not directly relate to the case.

"It appears to the court that defendants are not attempting to deny the criminal acts of which defendant Bernard J. Uckele was found guilty," Williamson said. "More precisely, as interpreted by this court, defendants assert that the issue of simple negligence, along with affirmative defenses now available to defendant Bernard J. Uckele in this civil matter, have never been adjudicated, nor has any comparative negligence on the part of the decedent been determined."

The defendant, Williamson noted, argued that the state's Comparative Negligence Law, 42 Pa. C.S.A. 7102(a), applies to wrongful death and survival cases. Uckele cited the 1979 Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas decision Vieira v. Rennie, in which the trial judge reduced a jury verdict in a survival action by 50 percent because the jury found the defendant 50 percent liable.

Bernard Uckele also pointed to jurisdictions that have allowed comparative negligence affirmative defenses to be asserted, despite a criminal conviction arising from the same set of facts.

Williamson sided with Uckele's position, and noted several cases from other jurisdictions, including Arizona, Nebraska, Maine and Idaho, that allowed comparative negligence arguments in civil trials stemming from the same set of facts that led to the criminal proceedings.

The defendant, Williamson noted, was arguing that the fatal incident occurred after Justin Uckele kicked open a door, which then either struck the gun's hammer, or caused the hammer to strike a wall, leading to the gun discharging without Bernard Uckele pulling the hammer.

"This court does not believe the allegations raised by defendants are done so to collaterally attack the underlying criminal conviction of defendant Bernard J. Uckele," Williamson said. "Rather, this court is compelled to view these allegations as an affirmative defense of comparative negligence, which defendants ... have the right to assert at this time."

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.

(Copies of the 10-page opinion in Martinez v. Uckele, PICS No. 14-0134, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •

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