A sleepy driver allegedly led to unimaginable carnage, reports The Associated Press. Thirteen people died at the scene when a bus, driven by Ophadell Williams, slid off the side of the road, tipped onto its side, and had its roof sheared off. Two died at the hospital. One passenger used his arms to protect his head and had those arms torn off. Another man lost an ear. Others suffered broken bones.
Williams is currently on trial for multiple counts of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Both charges require proof of negligence, or even worse, recklessness. In order to convict, the allegations of speeding and fatigued driving will have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This means the judge or jury will have to be nearly certain that Williams' conduct caused the accident and that such conduct fell below what is expected of the reasonable bus driver.
How does this related to the pending lawsuits? If Williams is convicted, that could possibly guarantee a victory in the lawsuits and lead to a quicker resolution and compensation for the families.
In a civil suit, the burden of proof is merely a preponderance of the evidence, meaning more likely than not. This is far less than the criminal standard. If he is shown to be negligent or reckless in a criminal trial, proving negligence in a civil trial should either be extremely easy or even completely unnecessary.
A rare concept in law is the use of offensive collateral estoppel. This fancy lawyer-speak essentially means that if the issue has been proven once in court, it need not be proven again. Of course, courts are reluctant to allow this, as people sometimes don’t have the same motivation or ability to defend the same issue in multiple trials.
For example, if someone sues you over $0.15 worth of damages, you might not hire the best and brightest counsel. You’d probably call your cousin Vinny. On the other hand, if you are later sued for $15 million, you are going to try to hire Clarence Darrow. Foreclosing your opportunity to defend the second, larger suit would be wholly unfair.
Williams is facing a massive jail sentence and must be proven guilty by an extremely high evidentiary standard. The stakes in the first trial are far higher than a civil suit, even if the victims’ families are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars. If he loses the first round, he might not even be there to defend himself in the second round.
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