In Cromer v. Wilson, 126 Nev. Adv. Op. No. 11 (March 2010), the Supreme Court of Nevada clarified that statutory defenses to liability are not nullified by NRS 41.133.
Plaintiff (passenger) and defendant (driver) were in a single car accident. While intoxicated, defendant veered off the road and rolled the vehicle several times. Plaintiff sustained permanent debilitating injuries. Defendant was subsequently charged and convicted of felony DUI and felony reckless driving.
Plaintiff filed civil charges alleging negligence. Defendant asserted comparative negligence as an affirmative defense citing NRS 41.141, which allows a court to reduce damages in proportion to relative fault.
Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment as to liability, arguing that NRS 41.133 provides that “[i]f an offender has been convicted of the crime which resulted in the injury to the victim, the judgment of conviction is conclusive evidence . . . . to impose civil liability for the injury.” The district court denied the motion, and allowed the case to proceed to trial on both liability and damages.
At trial the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded $4,530,785.50 in damages. The jury determined plaintiff was 25% at fault and reduced damages accordingly. Plaintiff appealed, claiming the court erred when it failed to grant summary judgment pursuant to NRS 41.133, which establishes liability based on criminal conviction.
Despite concluding that the district court erred when it failed to grant summary judgment as to liability, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the verdict because the outcome would have been the same. The Court approached the potential disconnect between NRS 41.133 and NRS 41.141 by harmonizing them within the larger context of the entire code. The Court found that NRS 41.133 “only establishes liability.” Liability does not establish damages; and must still be proven. NRS 41.133 alleviates a plaintiff from the burden of proving liability. The plaintiff is still responsible to establish damages. In so doing, a defendant may assert defenses such as comparative negligence “because they do not interfere with the determination of liability, only the amount of damages recoverable.”
This ruling allows courts and plaintiffs to efficiently establish liability for injuries caused by defendants convicted of criminal conduct. It will expedite the trial process by focusing solely on damages, and allow plaintiffs to recover more quickly to facilitate their recuperation.
Steve is the Managing Shareholder of Steven J. Klearman & Associates, a civil litigation law firm located in Reno, Nevada. He practices primarily in the areas of civil litigation and injury law, and has authored one of the definitive guides to Nevada civil law that is widely used by Nevada judges and attorneys, his book entitled Elements of Nevada Legal Theories.