Is a Criminal Conviction Proven Negligence Under Collateral Estoppel in a Civil Case?

By Robyn D. Kazatsky

June 14, 2023

Litigators frequently encounter situations wherein there are related criminal and civil matters, and so, we need to be cognizant of what, if any, impact a criminal case may have on civil litigation either occurring simultaneously or in the future.  But what are the limits on the doctrine of collateral estoppel?  The Pennsylvania Superior Court on March 2, 2023, found that, while a voluntary manslaughter conviction conclusively established that the defendant had a duty and breached his duty pursuant to collateral estoppel, to say the criminal conviction also established causation in the subsequent civil matter is a step too far.  See Rogers v. Thomas, 291 A.3d 865, 2023 Pa. Super. LEXIS 77 (March 2, 2023).  Despite the jury’s determination that Lloyd Thomas was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of voluntary manslaughter in the underlying criminal matter, the Superior Court found the jury in the subsequent civil matter still needed to evaluate whether defendants were negligent (that all elements had been satisfied) and that negligence was not presumed.  The Court also found the civil jury could consider evidence of decedents’ comparative negligence despite the jury in the criminal trial finding Thomas’ actions were intentional and without justification.

On February 11, 2012, Joshua Rogers and Gilberto Alvarez were shot and killed by Lloyd Thomas while the two men trespassed on property owned by Hayden Thomas, Lloyd’s father.  Lloyd Thomas was arrested, charged with, and convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter in January 2014.  Less than a month after the shooting deaths of Rogers and Alvarez, the Rogers Estate filed a wrongful death and survival action in the Court of Common Pleas for Lackawanna County against Lloyd Thomas, his father Hayden, and the Outdoorsman (a small gun shop owned and operated by Hayden Thomas out of his home).  After Lloyd Thomas was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, plaintiff in the civil action moved for and was granted partial summary judgment against Lloyd Thomas, successfully arguing that by finding Lloyd Thomas guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Lloyd Thomas committed an intentional and unjustified killing.  Accordingly, the trial court found the principles of collateral estoppel were applicable, and so, Lloyd Thomas was prohibited from relitigating the issue of intent in the subsequent civil matter.  That said, the trial court permitted evidence including the fact that decedents (chronic drug users) were armed, camouflaged trespassers on the night in question.  It also permitted Lloyd Thomas to assert the defense of comparative negligence.  Following a 9-day trial, the civil jury found Rogers and Alvarez 100% responsible for their own deaths, barring any recovery by their Estates.

On appeal, appellants argued that the trial court erred in submitting the issue of Lloyd’s liability to the jury because liability had already been determined in the underlying criminal case when Lloyd was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, an intentional and unreasonable killing.  Appellants argued the Court’s granting of partial summary judgment meant that Lloyd’s criminal conviction for voluntary manslaughter conclusively established his liability in the civil action under collateral estoppel.  The Superior Court disagreed, determining that while the first and second elements of negligence (duty and breach of duty) were established by the criminal conviction based on collateral estoppel, neither causation nor comparative fault were determined, and so, the jury could not yet consider damages. As indicated above, the jury found decedents 100% comparatively negligent, and accordingly, judgment was entered in favor of defendants.

After reviewing the elements of voluntary manslaughter, as well as applicable defenses and burdens of proof, the Superior Court found the Commonwealth met its burden in disproving Lloyd Thomas’ actions were “reasonable” or that the killings were justified self-defense.  Applying this to the civil matter, the Court found collateral estoppel conclusively established both that the conviction evidenced an intentional killing and that the claim of self-defense was unreasonable.  As such, the jury in the civil matter “was entitled to have been informed of Lloyd’s conviction and, equally as important, that Lloyd was found to have acted unreasonably and therefore negligently, because the sine quo non to find that a person acted negligently in a civil action is a finding that the person acted unreasonably.” Id. at 21, quoting Rutter v. Northeastern Beaver County School District, 496 Pa. 590, 437 A.2d 1198, 1212 (Pa. 1981).  “However, while Lloyd’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter established under collateral estoppel that he acted negligently, it did not conclusively establish that he was liable for civil damages. Damages could only be awarded after establishing causation, and then only if Decedents were not more than 50 percent casually negligent for bringing about their harm.” Id. at 21.  The Court found appellants failed to “recognize the limits of collateral estoppel. The principal error in Appellants’ argument that Lloyd’s conviction conclusively established his ‘liability’ and therefore, entitled them to a new trial on damages, ignores that all elements of a negligence cause of action must be satisfied to permit a recovery.”  Id.

It seems almost certain appellants will try to convince the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to weigh in on this issue.  But for now, it appears clear that while a criminal conviction may conclusively establish the first two elements of negligence (duty and breach of that duty) in a civil matter, the jury must still determine the third element, causation, before the issue of damages is decided.  More than that, a jury can also consider evidence of comparative negligence even if it is presumed the underlying criminal act may have been intentional, which does not automatically mean it was also “reckless, wanton, or willful.”

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