One of the many things I do as an Atlanta personal injury lawyer is to understand all the factors that can affect the value of a personal injury lawsuit. Whether the lawsuit arises out of a car accident, tractor-trailer accident, a slip and fall, a criminal assault, or any other type of accident caused by the negligence of other, there are certain factors that can affect the value of a lawsuit seeking damages for the wrong.
It is intuitive and easy to understand that things like the severity of the injury, the medical bills related to the treatment for those injuries, and lost income and wages was have an affect on the value of a lawsuit. If someone strains their thumb, their case is simply not going to be worth the case where the person has a comminuted fracture of the femur. Also, if the medical bills in a case are $3,500, that case is probably not going to have the value of a case where the medical bills are $250,000. Similarly, the more the lost wages caused by an accident, the more the case is likely worth.
One factor that is not so obvious is the criminal history of the injured party. Georgia courts have allowed the use of prior criminal convictions to impeach a witness or party in a civil lawsuit for a long time. The current law, enacted by the Georgia General Assembly in 2005, provides that a witness or party can be impeached by the admission at trial of convictions of both past misdemeanors and felonies. Specifically, a party can be impeached with the admission of a misdemeanor conviction if the misdemeanor involved dishonesty or making a false statement. With felonies, the convictions must be for crimes that require over 12 months incarceration and the judge must decide that the probative value of admitting the evidence outweighs the prejudice of admitting the conviction.
So what exactly do these requirements mean, and how can the admission of a conviction affect the value of a personal injury lawsuit at trial? To answer the second question first, I would say that most law-abiding jurors might very well simply not like someone who is a criminal. If the jury does not like you, believe me, they will not be inclined to award as much as if they did like you and wanted to help you. Also, if the evidence of a prior conviction meets the requirements and is allowed into evidence, the judge will tell the jury that they may ignore part or all of the party's testimony. This can have a real affect on the value of the jury's award.
Now addressing the first question; what is a crime involving dishonesty or making a false statement? I would say at a minimum, writing bad checks or committing insurance fraud. Evidence of convictions for these types of crimes absolutely could allow a jury to have a hard time trusting what a party says at trial. Regarding prior felony convictions, as mentioned above, to determine the admissibility, the judge must decide that the probative value of admitting the evidence outweighs the prejudice of admitting the conviction. What does that mean? It seems to leave the decision up to the judge's discretion. My guess the judge will let most anything in as long as it has some relevance to show the truthfulness of the witness.
The bottom line is this: if you are convicted of a crime, in addition to all the other negative consequences that may flow from the conviction, there is a good chance it can also negatively affect the value of your personal injury lawsuit