Guilty Plea in Criminal Court applies to Kentucky fatal car accident case

by Mandy Hicks

By Kyle Roby, attorney
English, Lucas, Priest and Owsley, LLP

Even car accident cases that seem simple in the beginning can grow complicated very quickly. In a recent Kentucky fatal car accident case, who was driving the car at the time of the accident was the legal question. The alleged operator of a car involved in a fatal collision accused his passenger of being behind the wheel, even after the operator had pled guilty to manslaughter in criminal court.

It was up to the trial court – and the court of appeals, on review – to decide whether the issue was to be resolved by judicial admission or by the jury at trial.

The Facts of the Case

In the recent case of Moffett v. Shaw, the named plaintiff was the administratrix for the estate of a man who died in a motor vehicle accident in McCracken County, Kentucky. At the time of the crash, the plaintiff’s decedent was operating his vehicle within the scope of his employment with The Paducah Sun newspaper group. The administratrix, along with the mother of the decedent’s minor children, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the operator and owners of the other vehicle involved in the fatal collision, as well as several others. In their suit, the administratrix and the mother asserted claims for negligence and negligent entrustment. They sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

The newspaper group filed an intervening complaint, seeking to recover workers’ compensation benefits that it had paid on the decedent’s behalf. The operator of the other vehicle, who was a minor, filed a lawsuit against the alleged passenger in his vehicle, claiming that the passenger was actually driving the car at the time of the wreck.

Meanwhile, criminal charges were filed against the operator of the vehicle, charging him with murder, assault, wanton endangerment, criminal mischief, and driving under the influence. The passenger was not criminally charged. After first denying that he was the driver of the car, the operator eventually entered into a guilty plea on charges of manslaughter, wanton endangerment, and criminal mischief.

The passenger filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the operator’s guilty plea was a judicial admission that prevented further consideration of the possibility that the passenger was the actual driver of the car at the time of the fatal collision. The trial court agreed, disregarding alleged DNA evidence found on the driver’s side airbag belonging to the passenger.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals

On appeal, the Kentucky Court of Appeals held that the trial court was correct in ruling that the operator’s admission in criminal court that he was the driver of the car that killed the decedent was a conclusive judicial admission. It absolved the passenger of any potential liability based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

To Talk to a Kentucky Lawyer About Your Car Accident Case

If you or a loved one has been hurt or died in a motor vehicle collision, you should speak to an attorney about your case. In addition to the statute of limitations, there may be other procedural deadlines that limit the time that you have to file suit against the party whose negligence or recklessness caused your or your loved one’s injuries. To speak with an experienced Kentucky car accident and wrongful death attorney, call me, attorney Kyle Roby, at the law office of English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley at (270) 781-6500 and ask for a free consultation. We represent families in both Kentucky and Tennessee, including Bowling Green, Nashville, Franklin, Springfield, Clarksville, Glasgow, and Hopkinsville.

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