The short answer is that your criminal record could hurt your personal injury claim. Let's look at why that might be, and how you may be able to minimize the negative impact that a criminal record might have.
A Criminal Record Is a Negative
Right or wrong, it’s human nature that the average person will see a criminal record (and the person who has that record) in a less than favorable light. And since the jury in a personal injury lawsuit is comprised of average people, you can see how a criminal record could have a negative impact on your case.
...But How Much of a Negative?
It should come as no surprise that the level of impact on the case depends on the type of crime or crimes on your record. If you were convicted of, for example, one DWI ten years ago, that is likely going to have very little effect on your personal injury case. As a general rule, the further back the conviction was and the less serious the crime, the less impact the conviction will have on your personal injury case.
On the other side of the coin, what are some types of crimes that will have a significantly negative impact on your case? Basically, any serious felony is going to hurt you (especially recent ones), and convictions for crimes like fraud, forgery, and perjury are really going to have a negative effect on your case. A jury is not likely to want to award a lot of money to a personal injury plaintiff who has done serious time for serious crimes in the past, absent clear evidence that the plaintiff has completely turned his or her life around. Again, right or wrong, that's human nature.
Why would convictions for crimes like fraud, forgery, and perjury be so bad for your prospects in a personal injury lawsuit? Because crimes like these involve lying, or deception. And since a personal injury case is based in significant part on the testimony of the plaintiff, if the jury knows that the plaintiff has been convicted for dishonest or deceptive conduct in the past, the jury might harbor suspicions about the plaintiff's honesty and veracity in the present case.
Minimizing the Impact of a Criminal Record
What can a plaintiff with a criminal record do to minimize the effects on their personal injury case? The first thing that a plaintiff can and must do is to tell the truth. Standard questions in any deposition of a plaintiff in a personal injury case include:
- "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" and
- "Tell me the details about every criminal conviction you have ever had."
A personal injury plaintiff must answer those questions truthfully. If the plaintiff doesn't answer truthfully and tries to hide a criminal conviction, that's going to come out at trial, and it will reflect very badly on the plaintiff in the eyes of the jury. Knowing this, the defense attorney is going to offer a minimal sum to settle the case, and the plaintiff’s lawyer is going to strongly suggest that the plaintiff accept the offer, rather than risk putting the case in the hands of a jury that might find against the plaintiff regardless of the evidence. (More: I Want to Take My Personal Injury Case to Trial But My Lawyer Wants to Settle.)
A Judge May Be Better Than a Jury
A plaintiff with a serious criminal record may want to have a serious talk with their lawyer about waiving a jury trial and allowing a judge to decide the case. Judges tend to decide cases more rationally than jurors. Although that’s one reason why a personal injury plaintiff wants a jury to decide their case -- because the jury might have an emotional reaction to the plaintiff’s injuries and award a lot of damages -- that works against a plaintiff with a criminal record. So, if you have a criminal record, you might want to give up your right to a jury and let a judge decide your case, if the law in your state allows for that.