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Criminal Conviction Advantageous For Subsequent Civil Lawsuit: Latest on Summary Judgment in Sexual Assault Cases

13 minute read

In sexual abuse and violence cases that are pursued in the civil courts, it is common for there to have been a prior criminal proceeding involving the same parties and factual issues. Many survivors are unaware that the civil justice system provides an alternative, or an additional, means of recourse and accountability. As a result, they often go directly to the police, thinking the criminal justice system is the only option available to them. Other survivors make a deliberate choice to report first to the police and then go through a criminal proceeding before becoming plaintiffs and pursuing a civil remedy.

In a previous blogpost, a posted article, and a video, I explained key differences between criminal and civil proceedings based on sexual assault allegations and how the two systems of justice – criminal and civil - interact. Here, my focus is on how a criminal conviction can narrow the liability issues that need to be proven in a later civil lawsuit dealing with similar matters.

The recent decision, Lambert et al. v. Lambert, 2022 ONSC 6432, by Regional Senior Justice Mark Edwards serves as a timely reminder that a conviction can dispense with the need to prove an individual defendant’s liability (or legal responsibility) in a civil lawsuit.

In Lambert v. Lambert, the defendant pled guilty to three counts of indecent assault against three family members. Afterward, two of these family members (daughters of the defendant) sued their father by bringing a civil claim. Despite his guilty plea in the criminal proceeding, the father, in his civil Statement of Defence, put forward a complete denial of any wrongdoing.

The plaintiff daughters went to court seeking partial summary judgment on their father’s civil liability. They wanted their father’s legal responsibility for abusing them determined summarily on the basis of his prior conviction, so only the issues of damages and what caused their damages would be left to be determined at trial. The Ontario Court of Appeal in Butera v. Chown Cairns LLP, 2017 ONCA 783 has said partial (as opposed to full) summary judgment will only be granted in rare cases. In Lambert v. Lambert, Edwards RSJ granted the plaintiffs’ motion, while acknowledging that partial summary judgment is reserved only for the “clearest” of cases. The judge found the case before him was one of those clear cases.

In explaining his decision to grant partial summary judgment, Edwards RSJ said, “Plaintiffs who are victims of sexual assault should know at the earliest opportunity that the issue of liability is a non-issue… It is equally important that the defendant understand now, and not later, that liability is no longer an issue.” In granting the motion, the judge said it would be “a rare case where partial summary judgment would not be granted” in circumstances like the ones before him.

Of course, as confirmed by Edwards RSJ, even after liability stops being an issue for resolution because summary judgment on liability has been granted, the plaintiffs must still prove their damages and what caused these. Likewise, if there are other defendants besides the individual defendant who has been criminally convicted, the liability of those defendants will remain to be determined.

It should be noted that Lambert v. Lambert involved a conviction arising from a guilty plea. In law, a guilty plea is an admission of wrongdoing by the accused person. Previously, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Franco v. White 2001 CanLII 24020 upheld a decision to grant partial summary judgment on liability in a sexual assault case in which the accused had entered a plea of “not guilty” and then faced a trial on the merits that resulted in a verdict of “guilty” by the jury.

Here are some “takeaways” from Franco v. White and Lambert v. Lambert, as well as my own years of experience litigating these kinds of cases, that are aimed at helping the reader navigate whether to bring or resist a motion for partial summary judgment on liability in a civil sexual abuse case that follows a conviction (that has not been successfully appealed) in a criminal case involving overlapping parties and issues:

  1. Section 22.1 of the Ontario Evidence Act provides that proof of a person’s conviction is proof in another subsequent proceeding that the criminal offence was, in fact, committed by that person unless there is evidence to the contrary. In short, the Evidence Act creates a statutory presumption of wrongdoing in the face of a conviction. This has also been described as giving rise to prima facie proof (to be distinguished from conclusive proof) of the fact of guilt in a later civil proceeding. Other jurisdictions in Canada have similar provisions in their respective Evidence Acts.
  2. Proof of a person’s prior conviction is proof not only of the guilty finding, but also of the “essential facts” underlying the criminal offence for which the person was found guilty – i.e., that the person committed certain unlawful acts with the state of mind (or intent) necessary to result in criminal guilt for the particular offence.
  3. As a result, convicted defendants cannot re-litigate the essential facts underlying the criminal offence. This means they cannot lead evidence to contradict the key facts behind their convictions.
  4. However, the statutory presumption of wrongdoing created by the Ontario Evidence Act (and other Evidence Acts across Canada) can, in certain circumstances, be rebutted (or countered). As the Ontario Court of Appeal in Franco v. White said, “Summary judgment does not follow automatically upon a criminal conviction if the defendant can show that despite the conviction, there is an issue to be tried.” The courts have accepted that defendants may rebut the presumption of wrongdoing to which a conviction gives rise. To do so, they will need to adduce compelling evidence that, in the context of a summary judgment motion, gives rise to a triable issue or, if at trial, is sufficient to discharge the defendant’s rebuttal onus of proof. Examples of where the effect of a conviction may be successfully rebutted are where the conviction was vague, and there was not sufficient similarity between the facts giving rise to the civil claim and those underlying the conviction, or where a defendant lacked adequate incentive to fully defend a minor criminal charge, and it would be unfair to hold the defendant to that result when facing more serious consequences from a civil action. The case law suggests it will be rare for a court to look behind a criminal conviction and find it cannot be relied upon in a subsequent civil proceeding. Certainly, a previously convicted defendant cannot simply repeat their plea of not guilty and assert a blanket denial of the allegations, and expect this to be sufficient to rebut the presumption of guilt. More than this is required.
  5. The documents from the criminal proceeding that civil lawyers on both sides need to collect and rely upon to prove (or rebut) the presumption of wrongdoing in the civil proceeding include:

    (a) A certificate of conviction (see s. 22.1(3) of Ontario’s Evidence Act, which addresses how to prove a conviction);

    (b) In the case of a guilty plea, the transcript of the criminal proceeding that includes the agreed statement of facts, the judge’s reasons for guilty verdict, and the judge’s reasons for sentence; and

    (c) In the case of a contested trial on the merits, the transcript of the criminal proceeding that includes the judge’s jury charge and the jury’s verdict (where it was trial by jury), and in a trial by judge alone, the judge’s reasons for conviction, and the judge’s reasons for sentence. (See s. 5 of Ontario’s Evidence Act which addresses admissibility of transcripts and s. 36(1) for when judicial notice can be taken of a judicial document like a judge’s reasons, order, and judgment.)

  6. For plaintiffs and their lawyers, there is good legal authority for shortening the civil litigation process by, in effect, taking a big (and often difficult) piece of what has to be proven – namely, the factual allegations of the assault(s) that underpin civil liability – out of the equation. This potentially means a more streamlined litigation process, including a narrower scope for documentary and oral discovery of the plaintiff and a shorter and less distressing process for the plaintiff, who will not be called upon to repeat and re-live the details of what happened through oral examination for discovery, a defence medical examination, and/or at trial through their testimony.
  7. However, there are many practical considerations that plaintiffs and their lawyers will need to bear in mind when deciding whether to move for partial summary judgment on liability. These include:

    (a)Whether this means they must confine the causes of action pleaded in their Statement of Claim to those that most closely resemble the elements of the criminal offence for which the defendant was convicted, or abandon certain causes of action that introduce new elements that will have to be separately proven to establish liability. In Franco v. White, for example, the plaintiff on the summary judgment motion made a strategic decision to abandon her claims for breach of trust, negligence, and intentional infliction of mental suffering asserted in her Statement of Claim and to limit her claim to one for civil sexual assault. In some cases, restricting the claim made to what aligns most closely with the criminal offence on which the conviction was based will not capture the full extent of the wrongdoing and its impacts;

    (b) Whether removing liability from the equation might unduly narrow the defendant’s documentary and oral discovery obligations

    (c) Whether the conviction is based on facts that do not cover the full range of factual allegations in terms of types and nature of occurrences and potentially aggravating factors, like threats, violence, breach of trust, and being made to submit to particularly degrading or humiliating acts. If so, there will be good reason not to pursue partial summary judgment, so the full scope of the wrongdoing is before the court when it assesses damages;

    (d) Remember that a plea of “guilty” is often based on an agreed statement of facts, which reflects a compromise between the Crown and the accused person. Such a statement will need to be reviewed carefully to determine what was omitted, and how any omissions may detract from the plaintiff’s civil claims for liability and damages;

    (e) Whether, in order to prove compensatory damages in the civil proceeding, evidence with respect to the facts of what happened are necessary and helpful to the plaintiff’s case;

    (f) Whether, in order to overcome the impediments to punitive damages where there has been a prior conviction (see T. v. D.T., 2021 ONSC 5926 for the guiding principles in this regard), it is necessary to adduce evidence as to what exactly occurred and how, for example, this extended beyond the facts supporting the criminal conviction; and

    (g) Whether defence counsel will voluntarily agree to limit discovery of the plaintiff to the issues of damages and their causes. If the Statement of Defence contains a complete denial of wrongdoing despite the prior conviction, determine whether it is worth trying to reach an agreement with the defence lawyer(s) that they will not question the plaintiff on what happened, and will agree to limit their examination to what impacts the assaults (and other events) had on the plaintiff.

  8. For convicted defendants and their lawyers, the following should be considered from the outset:

    (a) Whether a blanket (or complete) denial of liability in a Statement of Defence, response to a motion for summary judgment on liability, and/or Request to Admit is advisable, bearing in mind that doing so could give rise to additional damages being awarded against the defendant for their refusal to accept the guilty verdict and their lack remorse and/or an unfavourable cost award for prolonging the litigation;

    (b) If the allegations in the civil lawsuit extend beyond the essential facts on which the criminal conviction was based, then consider asserting a partial denial of liability in which only the allegations of fact that extend beyond those that were foundational to the conviction are disputed;

    (c) If evidence to rebut the statutory presumption of wrongdoing that arises from a conviction is available, be sure to plead the relevant facts in the Statement of Defence and to adduce this evidence in response to a motion for partial summary judgment on liability and/or to lead it at trial; and

    (d) If the presumption of wrongdoing from the conviction is unassailable, then look for ways to shorten the litigation and its associated expense by conducting an examination for discovery of the plaintiff that is focused on damages (and telling the plaintiff’s lawyer in advance that this is the intent), and looking for early opportunities to settle the action.

Unlike a prior acquittal which is not relevant nor admissible in a civil case (see, for example, Polgrain Estate v. Toronto East General Hospital, 2008 ONCA 427), a prior conviction has many implications for a later civil lawsuit involving the same parties and essential facts. The potential for summary judgment on liability is just one of these implications. Our courts have made it clear that a criminal conviction can be advantageous for plaintiffs in a later civil action, as it may dispense with the need to prove liability against convicted defendants. The decision to proceed with a motion for partial summary judgment and what position to take in response to such a motion are matters deserving careful and strategic consideration by the parties to a civil lawsuit and their lawyers.

While a prior conviction is by no means a prerequisite to pursuing a civil remedy for sexual abuse and violence, where a conviction does exist, whether based on a guilty plea or a trial verdict of guilty, it will usually allow plaintiff survivors to move through the civil process towards resolution and some closure, more efficiently and confidently. For defendants – both those who have been previously convicted and others who may share legal responsibility for the wrongdoing – a prior criminal conviction can offer opportunities for a more streamlined and cost-effective resolution of a civil matter.

Elizabeth Grace

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