Parallel Criminal Proceedings and Depositions in DUI Accident Cases
In seeking relief on behalf of the victims of DUI accidents, one of most crucial aspects in building the case is taking the driver’s deposition. A deposition is an opportunity to ask questions of a witness before trial. It’s under oath and happens in front of a court reporter, but doesn’t have to follow the exact rules of evidence or other formalities that are required during an actual trial. The deposition lets attorneys gather key information and pose tough questions to key witnesses. In a DUI accident case, one of the most important witnesses to be called is, of course, the driver of the vehicle that caused the accident. Getting answers to questions about the person’s level of intoxication, habits of consuming alcohol, history of drug use, or other similar problems can be vital in demonstrating the person’s recklessness.
However, depositions in DUI accident cases sometimes pose unique challenges as a result of the fact that there are, frequently, criminal charges that arise out of the accident as well. If a drunk driver collides with another motorist, totaling his or her car and causing serious injuries, there may be a criminal case brought against him as well. And the criminal case may take place at the same time as any civil litigation.
This coincidence, however, affords the driver a unique ability to avoid answering potentially incriminating questions during a deposition. He or she can invoke the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination to avoid answering targeted questions during a civil deposition, on the grounds that a truthful answer could be used against him or her in the parallel criminal case. Thus, by the mere happenstance of the fact that the two cases are taking place at the same time, the driver is able to avoid disclosing pertinent facts in the civil negligence proceeding.
An Example from the Florida Courts
The 2010 case of Belniak v. McWilliams provides an excellent example. There, the defendant, Mr. Belniak, had driven drunk and struck the plaintiff’s (McWilliams’) automobile, causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage and serious neck and back injuries. As a result, a criminal prosecution was brought against him for reckless driving with serious bodily injury. At the same time, the plaintiff’s lawyers brought a civil case against him seeking to recover damages for the injuries and damage to the vehicle. During the defendants’ deposition the plaintiff’s lawyer tried to ask a number of pertinent questions, including the following:
- Whether Belniak drinks alcohol;
- The healthcare providers of Belniak;
- Whether Belniak smokes cigarettes;
- Whether Belniak has or is undergoing health care treatment for mental disorders or defects, including any health conditions which would affect his memory; and
- Whether Belniak has filed any healthcare claims.
However, during the deposition, Belniak’s counsel instructed him to take the Fifth in response to all of the questions, citing the parallel criminal proceeding. The Florida Court of Appeals ruled that he may have been in his right to do so and that the judge should carefully consider what the witness’s answer would be and how it might affect him if divulged in the criminal proceeding.
Experienced Counsel Can Help You Navigate These Issues
As this case illustrates, in gathering information for a civil case, timing is everything. It can sometimes be better to wait until after the conclusion of criminal proceedings so as to ensure that one can get fulsome, honest responses during a deposition. Savvy DUI accident counsel like the attorneys at Gary Roberts & Associates, P.A. can properly advise you on the matter.