When Negligence Becomes Manslaughter

 

I’ve been following the New York criminal trial of a crane master rigger. He was charged with seven counts of manslaughter after a crane which he “jumped” had collapsed, causing the deaths of several workers. Today, the judge entered not guilty verdicts in favor of the rigger on all seven counts. I’m sure that is one relieved construction worker who never thought he could end up in a criminal courtroom for his acts on a construction site. Here is a copy of the first report of the verdict from New York Construction.com:  http://is.gd/dConm
 
I have grave concerns about any time when someone is criminally charged with an offense after some type of accident. This crane rigger, for example, appeared to have gotten swept up in a political issue of crane safety in New York City which might have played some role in having him criminally charged for his actions. New York has been the site of several crane collapses in recent years, each of which has caused an uproar about safety. These incidents have drawn a great deal of attention on the City’s inspection procedures. When that type of focus is aimed at a governmental unit, the result can be politically based decisions to criminally prosecute in order to draw away the fire from the government.
 
I’ve experienced other situations in which there a civil suit has been filed or was about to be filed but in which there have also been pending criminal prosecutions. Much of the time, this occurs following a serious motor vehicle accident so it is almost a routine action. Nevertheless, there is sometimes much pressure brought to bear on the prosecutors by the victim’s civil attorney to obtain a conviction. If it is minor traffic offense, then a finding of guilty after the defendant pleaded not guilty will not be admissible as evidence in a later civil suit. The law on that issue is as follows:
 
It is the general rule in Illinois that a plea of guilty to a traffic citation is admissible at a subsequent civil proceeding as evidence of the defendant’s admission to guilt of the underlying incident, but that a conviction for the same offense following a not guilty plea cannot be considered evidence in the later civil proceeding. Thurmond v. Monroe, 159 Ill.2d 240, 636 N.E.2d 544, 201 Ill.Dec. 112 (1994); Wright v. Stokes, 167 Ill.App.3d 887, 522 N.E.2d 308 (5th Dist. 1988); Hengles v. Gilski, 127 Ill. App. 3d 894, 469 N.E.2d 708 (1984), relying on Smith v. Andrews, 54 Ill.App.2d 51, 62, 203 N.E.2d 160, 166 (1965); Hartigan v. Robertson, 87 Ill. App. 3d 732, 738, 409 N.E.2d 366, 371 (1980). The guilty plea is treated differently than a conviction following a not guilty plea because the plea of guilty is taken as a judicial admission made by the defendant. Spircoff v. Stranski, 301 Ill.App.3d 10, 703 N.E.2d 431, 234 Ill.Dec. 570 (1st Dist. 1998).
 
In a few of the situations I’ve seen where a plaintiff’s lawyer is putting pressure on a prosecutor, that pressure is directed to seeking a guilty plea (so it can be used as evidence in the civil suit) rather than on obtaining a conviction to see that “justice is done.” I can’t blame the plaintiff attorneys for this as it is attempting to obtain the best position for their clients in the civil case.
 
The real problem is the role of prosecutors in attempting to assuage public or political outcry by carrying out prosecutorial discretion in a manner which deviates from the normal exercise of discretion.
 
I cannot make a definitive statement about the motivations of the New York prosecutors in pressing criminal charges against a construction worker. All I know is that when the political system gets involved in attempting to find “justice” following accidents, we should all be careful.

 

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