As lawyers representing a wide variety of motor carriers in personal injury cases, we are often asked what effect a traffic citation issued against an employee driver following an accident will have on any civil proceedings brought against the motor carrier and its driver. Not only is the driver facing potential fines and consequences that may impair his or her ability to be licensed or to maintain or find employment, but the driver also faces potential civil liability along with his or her employer. As the disposition of the traffic infraction can happen quickly and have serious implications for any civil case arising out of an accident, a driver and his or her employer must act fast to consult an attorney experienced in these matters.
A traffic citation following an accident is not going to go away on its own. In most cases, an employee driver is faced with four options: The driver may pre-pay the citation; appear in court and plead “guilty”; plead “no contest”; or may plead “not guilty.” Three of these options are likely to torpedo a defense against civil liability in a related personal injury proceeding.
Pre-paying a Traffic Citation and Pleading “Guilty”
Following a motor vehicle accident, many drivers may be tempted to pre-pay a citation and avoid the hassle of going to court. This is often the case when a driver is from out of state. However, this may prove to be a serious mistake as it will immediately impact any civil case arising from the accident. A Virginia statute provides that when an accused pre-pays a ticket, the tender of payment operates as a waiver of a court hearing and constitutes the entry of a guilty plea. See Virginia Code Ann. § 19.2-254.1. Thus, pre-paying the ticket operates no differently than if the driver pleads guilty in open court. A guilty plea is admissible evidence in civil proceedings, as in a personal injury case, and will be offered into evidence as an admission of fault on the driver’s part. Of course, the driver’s employer will be vicariously liable for the acts of its driver when its driver was operating the vehicle within the scope and course of employment, which is often the case.
What About a Plea Bargain?
Virginia prosecutors know that a conviction for certain infractions can be harmful to a driver’s CDL licensure. They may sometimes offer a plea agreement to reduce a fine or to amend the charge to a less impactful one in exchange for a plea of guilty. The plea agreement may be an attractive option for the employee driver. However, such an agreement will not shield a driver and employer from the impact of the guilty plea in a civil proceeding.
Plea of “No Contest”
Drivers charged in many states who hope to avoid the civil implications of pleading guilty in a traffic hearing often take advantage of another option – pleading “no contest” (also known as a plea of nolo contendere). When a driver enters a “no contest” plea in open court, he or she is neither admitting nor denying that he or she committed an infraction or crime. The court will still enter a conviction against the driver and impose a sentence as if the driver was guilty. In most states, this plea is advantageous as it cannot be used as evidence of an admission of fault in a civil proceeding. However, Virginia is different. It is among only a minority of states that allow “no contest” pleas as admissible evidence to prove an admission of fault. See Virginia Code Ann. § 8.01-418.
Plea of “Not Guilty”
As there are essentially three ways to plead that can ultimately be used against the driver and his or her employer to prove civil liability, only a plea of “not guilty” will insulate a driver and his or her employer from admission of fault in a civil case. A “not guilty” plea will also allow a driver to fight the charge and potentially prevail at trial.
As handling a traffic citation arising out of an accident involving personal injury is wrought with pitfalls from the start, it is important to consult with an attorney experienced in these matters quickly. If you are an employer or a driver facing a charge related to a motor vehicle accident and are unsure how to proceed, please contact the law firm of Franklin & Prokopik, P.C.
Written by associate Aaron Cheatham.