Civil Practice

Convicted Defendants Can Still Contest Liability in Civil Cases

, The Legal Intelligencer

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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.'"

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