Civil Practice

Convicted Defendants Can Still Contest Liability in Civil Cases

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In an issue of apparent first impression, a man convicted of killing his son will have the chance to present comparative negligence arguments in the subsequent wrongful death and survival civil proceedings.

Monroe County Court of Common Pleas Judge David J. Williamson denied the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on liability in Martinez v. Uckele in December, holding that there were genuine questions of fact that had not been previously determined in the criminal proceedings.

Williamson said the issue of whether a criminal conviction forecloses a defendant's comparative negligence arguments when the civil and criminal actions stem from the same incident has not been addressed in Pennsylvania, but he noted that other jurisdictions have allowed civil defendants to assert comparative negligence defenses under similar circumstances.

"Taking into consideration the arguments set forth by defendants, together with the persuasive examples of other jurisdictions, this court believes the correct course of action in this case is to allow defendants to proceed at this time on the issue of disputed liability when considering any comparative negligence," Williamson said.

The court allowed the parties to begin further discovery regarding liability; however, plaintiffs attorney Gary A. Brienza of Peters, Moritz, Peischl, Zulick, Landes & Brienza said he has filed an interlocutory appeal with the state Superior Court.

The decision "basically allows the criminal defendants to raise arguments which were already rejected in the criminal matter," Brienza said. "Obviously there's a higher burden of proof in criminal cases, and if he couldn't meet the burden there, I'm not sure why he should be able, when he'd already been convicted, to argue comparative negligence against the person who's dead. It doesn't seem right, legally, and it doesn't seem fair."

According to the decision, Justin B. Uckele was shot and killed by his father, Bernard J. Uckele, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in September 2010. Plaintiff Jacqueline Martinez brought the case on behalf of her son, Justin B. Uckele Jr., whom she alleged was the son of Justin B. Uckele. She sought recovery for wrongful death and survival against Bernard Uckele.

Martinez contended that Bernard Uckele's negligent actions caused his son's death, and, because the criminal conviction conclusively established his liability, the defendants were precluded through collateral estoppel from relitigating the liability. She sought summary judgment on liability.

In support of her motion, Martinez cited the 1987 Superior Court case of In re Estate of Reinert, in which a defendant had been convicted of a theft and was then ordered to pay restitution to the aggrieved estate. After the defendant appealed a grant of summary judgment regarding the reimbursement, the Superior Court concluded that the criminal conviction arose from the same set of facts as the present civil action and, as those facts were central to the instant action, a summary judgment may be granted.

The plaintiff further cited the 1994 Superior Court case Shaffer v. Smith. In Shaffer, a defendant was convicted of aggravated assault, and the plaintiff was granted summary judgment in a subsequent civil action. The Supreme Court, according to Williamson, said on appeal, "'It is well established that a criminal conviction collaterally estops a defendant from denying his acts in a subsequent civil trial.'"

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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