In the vast majority of jurisdictions, a criminal conviction or guilty plea acts as a bar and collaterally estops the retrial of issues in a civil trial when those same issues were actually litigated in the criminal trial.1 While Illinois courts currently follow this modern trend, the evolution of the law has taken almost forty years. Even today, Illinois courts will not strictly apply collateral estoppel. Rather, the application of the doctrine is determined on a case-by-case basis after consideration of all the available factors surrounding the criminal action.2
The first case in Illinois to hold that proof of a conviction was admissible in a subsequent civil action in order to prove the facts upon which the conviction was based was Smith v. Andrews.3 In 1964, the Smith court found that a conviction is admissible in a subsequent civil action under an exception to the hearsay rule.4 In Smith, the court held that the defendant's previous conviction of rape, a felony, was admissible in a later civil case as prima facie evidence that the defendant had in fact committed a rape. In reaching its decision, the court commented upon the distinction between allowing a defendant's plea of guilty into evidence under the judicial admission exception to the hearsay rule and allowing a defendant's actual conviction following a plea of not guilty to be used as evidence of the facts supporting the conviction. The court noted that a guilty plea is not offered to prove the essential facts of the case but rather to prove that the offender admitted facts constituting guilt.5 In contrast, a conviction in a previous criminal case is offered as prima facie evidence of the facts upon which the conviction is based. A guilty plea offered as an admission and a conviction offered to prove the facts upon which it was based are conceptually different and require different analyses; however, the result of admission of both types of evidence shall often produce the same ultimate effect in that the trier of fact has before it facts concerning the incident which led to the guilty plea of conviction.6
While the Second District in Smith specifically excluded the admission of traffic court convictions under the hearsay exception, in 1978 the Illinois Supreme Court in Thorton v. Paul7 expanded the limited exception to the hearsay rule to allow the admission of certain misdemeanor convictions at later civil proceedings.8 Although both Smith and Thorton allowed certain convictions to be admitted into evidence, neither case found that a criminal conviction constituted conclusive proof of the facts upon which it was based. Consequently, collateral estoppel did not apply and a defendant could rebut the factual basis of the criminal conviction insofar as those facts were applicable to the subsequent civil proceeding.
Eight years after Thorton Illinois courts continued to follow the reasoning of both Smith and Thorton. In Hengles v. Gilski, the First District found a traffic court conviction was not admissible in a later civil proceeding since a traffic conviction did not possess the adequate assurance of reliability necessary to justify its admission.9 The court stated that to allow an admission from a traffic proceeding could conceivably turn a mechanical and summary traffic court hearing into the cornerstone of a significant civil action filed after the conclusion of the criminal proceeding.10
During the time that Hengles was being decided courts across the nation began to recognize a need to apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel, even when a plea or conviction stemmed from a traffic case. These jurisdictions felt that equity demanded the application of collateral estoppel to prevent a criminal defendant from pleading guilty to an intentional crime and then subsequently denying his criminal guilt for the purposes of pursuing or avoiding financial compensation in a civil suit.11 For example, in Cole v. Taylor,12 the Supreme Court of Iowa rejected on public policy grounds a convicted defendant's subsequent claim in a civil suit that her psychiatrist's negligent treatment caused her to commit the crime. In a similar vein, a New York court cautioned that courts should not be expected to look behind knowing and voluntary pleas of guilt to relieve defendants from adverse civil consequences that may follow from the defendants' admissions of guilt to serious criminal charges.13 The New York court held that "[a]s long as the guilty plea stands, the defendant is guilty and cannot be heard to say otherwise."14
Further, in Adkinson v. Rossi Arms Co.,15 a defendant who had been convicted of manslaughter was then sued by the victim's family for wrongful death. As a defense to the civil suit, he sought to implead the gun manufacturer on the ground that the gun was defective and had killed the victim when it discharged accidentally. The Alaska Supreme Court, in rejecting the defendant's attempt to implead the gun manufacturer, observed that allowing "a criminal defendant who has been convicted of an intentional killing, to impose liability on others for the consequences of his own anti-social conduct runs counter to basic values underlying our criminal justice system."16
After Hengles, Illinois courts slowly began following the trend of the nation and started to apply collateral estoppel more liberally in civil actions where a guilty plea or conviction had been previously entered on the same issue in the civil proceeding. However, in the process of applying the doctrine the Illinois Supreme Court in 1997 carved out an exception to the rule which still exists today. The case of Talarico v. Dunlap is illustrative of this exception.
In Talarico, a patient brought a medical malpractice action against a physician claiming that a negligent prescription of medicine caused him to engage in criminal conduct. Previous to filing the civil lawsuit, the patient entered a guilty plea in a criminal trial and admitted to having committed misdemeanor battery intentionally, knowingly and without legal justification.17 The physician in the civil trial moved for summary judgment and argued that the patient should be collaterally estopped from relitigating the cause of his criminal conduct which was previously decided in the criminal action.18 On a petition for leave to appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court found that while determining whether the doctrine of collateral estoppel should be applied courts must balance the need to limit litigation against the right of a fair adversary proceeding in which a party may fully present his case.19
The Talarico court further noted that the following three threshold requirements must be met prior to the collateral estoppel doctrine being applied: (1) the issue decided in the prior adjudication must be identical with the one presented in the suit in question, (2) there must have been a final judgment on the merits in the prior adjudication, and (3) the party against whom estoppel is asserted must have been a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication.20 However, the Court found that even where the threshold elements are satisfied the doctrine must not be applied to preclude the parties from presenting their claims or defenses unless it is clear that no unfairness will result to the party being estopped.21
Since in Talarico the parties did not question the propriety of applying collateral estoppel to bar the relitigation in a civil case of an issue previously decided in a criminal proceeding and the parties conceded that the elements for collateral estoppel had been satisfied, the Court was left to determine the incentive to litigate exception to the collateral estoppel doctrine. The Court asserted that the "incentive to litigate might be absent, for instance, where the amount at stake in the first litigation was insignificant, or if the future litigation was not foreseeable.22 In the context of prior criminal proceedings, the seriousness of the allegations or the criminal charge at the prior hearing is a factor to be considered. If the offense charges is of a minor or trivial nature, a defendant might not be sufficiently motivated to challenge the allegations made at trial and, in such a case, it might be unfair to allow collateral estoppel to be asserted later. However, even summary offenses, when they provide sufficient incentive and opportunity for a defense, may be the basis of collateral estoppel in a subsequent civil proceeding as, for instance, when they are part of another important charge."23 Therefore, the court warned that collateral estoppel must be used sparingly, on a case-by-case basis, and only when equity requires.24
After reviewing the facts of the underlying criminal action, including the generousness of the plea offer and the lack of foreseeability of any future civil litigation, the Court found that the defendant's plea was a compromise.25 The defendant clearly had no incentive to litigate the criminal charges lodged against him.26 Therefore, the guilty plea could not collaterally estop the patient in his civil suit from claiming the medicine prescribed by the physician proximately caused his criminal behavior even though he had admitted during his plea that his behavior was intentional.27
The Illinois Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the "incentive to litigate" exception in the case of American Family Mutual Ins. Co. v. Savickas. In American Family, an insurer brought a declaratory judgment action seeking a determination that it had no duty to defend its insured in a wrongful death suit brought by the family of a man the insured had been previously convicted of murdering.28 The insured's policy did not cover any intentional acts and the insurer argued that the criminal prosecution conclusively established that the insured executed an intentional act when he committed murder.
In finding that the insured could be estopped from bringing a subsequent civil action, the Court overruled, in part, its previous decision of Thorton v. Paul.29 The Illinois Supreme Court for the first time stated unequivocally that a criminal conviction constitutes conclusive proof of the facts upon which it was based, rather than mere prima facie evidence which could be rebutted.30 The Court in American Family further cautioned, however, that collateral estoppel must be narrowly applied and that courts must continue to balance the need to limit litigation against the right to an adversarial proceeding in which a party is accorded a full and fair opportunity to present his case. Also relevant to any Court's decision with respect to the application of collateral estoppel must be the party's incentive to litigate the criminal case. Even a party who did litigate an issue in a prior case might not be estopped by the result therein if he can show that the original criminal litigation was a side show rather than a struggle to the finish.31
1 American Family Mutual Ins. Co. v. Savickas, 193 Ill. 2d 378, 384, 739 N.E.2d 445 (Ill. 2000).
2 Talarico v. Dunlap, 177 Ill. 2d 185, 200, 685 N.E.2d 325 (Ill. 1997).
3 54 Ill. App. 2d 51, 203 N.E.2d 160 (2nd Dist. 1964)
4 Hengles v. Gilski, 127 Ill. App. 3d 894, 469 N.E.2d 708 (1st Dist. 1984) (citing Cleary & Graham, Handbook of Illinois Evidence §803.21 (4th ed. 1984)).
5 Id. (citing Cleary & Graham, Handbook of Illinois Evidence §802.4 (4th ed. 1984)).
7 85 Ill. App. 3d 121, 405 N.E.2d 1341 (4th Dist. 1978).
8 Hengles, 127 Ill. App. 3d at 907.
9 Id. at 910.
10 Id. But see, Wright v. Stokes, 167 Ill. App. 3d 887, 892, 522 N.E.2d 308 (5th Dist. 1988) (trial court's failure to allow the plea into evidence was reversible error where the resolution of the case depended upon whether the jury believed plaintiff or defendant).
11 Talarico, 177 Ill. 2d at 205.
12 301 N.W.2d 766, 768 (Iowa 1981).
13 Merchants Mutual Ins. Co. v. Arzillo, 98 A.D.2d 495 (N.Y. 1984).
14 Id. at 506. But see, Talarico, 177 Ill. 2d at 199 (refusal to look behind the curtain of the negotiated guilty plea is to require every criminal defendant with a potential civil suit to proceed with criminal trial regardless of the risks, this will have a chilling effect on the acceptance of guilty pleas).
15 659 P.2d 1236, 1239-40 (Alaska 1983).
16 Id. at 1240.
17 Talarico, 177 Ill. 2d at 188.
18 Id. at 191.
19 Id. at 192 (citing 50 C.J.S. Judgments §779 (1997)).
20 American Family, 193 Ill. 2d at 387 (citing People v. Nance, 189 Ill. 2d 142, 147, 724 N.E.2d 889 (2000); Talarico v. Dunlap, 177 Ill. 2d 185, 191, 685 N.E.2d 325 (1997)).
21 Id. at 388.
22 Talarico, 177 Ill. 2d at 192 (citing 47 Am. Jur. 2d Judgments §651 (1995)).
23 Id. (citing 50 C.J.S. Judgments §922 (1997)).
24 Id. at 200.
25 Id. at 197.
26 Id. at 198.
28 American Family, 193 Ill. 2d at 378.
29 Id. at 386.
31 Id. at 388 (citing Talarico v. Dunlap, 177 Ill. 2d 185, 196, 685 N.E.2d 325 (1997)).
Stephen W. Baker received his Undergraduate Degree from Western Illinois University and his Law Degree from Loyola University. Since 1987, he has been a Public Defender with the DuPage County Public Defender’s Office, Wheaton, IL.
Mark Rouleau is a sole practitioner in Rockford, Illinois. He received his Undergraduate Degree in 1980 from the Southern Illinois University. He received his Law Degree in 1983 from DePaul University College of Law.