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Tennessee Supreme Court Establishes New Rule for Collateral Estoppel in Civil Lawsuit Based on Injury to a Child – Bowen v. Arnold

Although the purposes of a civil lawsuit and a criminal prosecution are quite different, the issues in related civil and criminal cases may be very similar. For instance, in a car accident case, a defendant may be criminally prosecuted for driving under the influence of alcohol and may also be sued civilly for negligently or recklessly causing a motor vehicle accident while intoxicated.

In the criminal case, the court may order the defendant to pay a fine, perform community service, or be incarcerated. In the civil case, the court may hold the defendant liable for damages resulting from the car accident and order the defendant (or, in actuality, their insurance company) to pay money to the plaintiff in compensation for their medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering associated with the accident.

Recently, the state supreme court clarified the issue of whether a judgment of conviction in a criminal case could be used as evidence by the plaintiff in a civil case.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Bowen v. Arnold, the plaintiff was the mother of a minor child who was allegedly raped and molested multiple times by a man who was supposed to be acting as the child’s mentor through a program offered through the partnership of two organizations serving young people in middle Tennessee. The mentor was convicted of one count of aggravated sexual battery and three counts of rape of a child. His conviction was affirmed by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

Meanwhile, the mother filed a civil lawsuit against the mentor and others, seeking compensatory damages both individually and on behalf of the minor child. After the appellate court affirmed the mentor’s conviction, the mother filed a motion for partial summary judgment, arguing that, due to the criminal conviction, the mentor was collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue of whether he actually raped and sexually battered the minor child in the civil lawsuit.

The mentor opposed the mother’s motion, maintaining that collateral estoppel did not apply because the criminal trial and the civil trial were “wholly separate and distinct proceedings” involving different parties, interests, rules, and witnesses. The mentor also argued that the element of party mutuality was lacking because the minor child was not a party to the criminal proceedings, nor was he in privity with the State of Tennessee in the criminal case.

The trial court granted the mother’s motion for partial summary judgment but allowed the mentor to seek an interlocutory appeal.

Decision of the Supreme Court of Tennessee

The intermediate court of appeals declined the mentor’s request for interlocutory relief, but the state’s highest court granted the mentor’s application for permission to appeal. After considering the arguments of the respective parties, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision granting partial summary judgment to the mother.

In abolishing the strict party mutuality requirement for offensive and defensive collateral estoppel, the court opted to adopt §§ 29, 85 of the Restatement (Second) of Judgments as the guidelines to be used by the Tennessee courts in deciding whether non-mutual collateral estoppel applies in a particular case. With regard to the particular case at bar, the court opined that treating the issue of whether the mentor raped and sexually battered the minor child as conclusively determined in the criminal action was compatible with the applicable scheme of administering remedies. In so holding, the court noted that it could be “a general indictment of the whole American jury system” to take the opposite approach and allow a civil jury (which functions under a much lower standard of proof) to relitigate – and possible contradict – an issue already decided by the criminal court.

Talk to a Knowledgeable Knoxville Attorney about Your Child’s Injury

If your child has been injured in an accident or due to the negligent, careless, or reckless conduct of another party, the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C. can help. To talk to an experienced Knoxville child injury lawyer, call us today at 865-524-5657. There is no charge for the initial consultation, and many cases are accepted on a contingency fee arrangement. We assist clients throughout east Tennessee, including in Knox, Blount, and Anderson Counties.

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