Acquittal of a drunk driver does not exclude civil liability


In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights issued its judgment in Papageorgiou v Greece (application No. 44101/13), holding that despite his prior acquittal, the imposition of civil liability on a driver for causing an accident under the influence of alcohol did not violate the presumption of innocence. The case provides an opportunity to discuss how the outcome of criminal proceedings impacts drunk drivers’ liability for damages.

Facts of the case

In 2005, the applicant, a Greek citizen, was driving when he had an automobile accident, in which his passenger was injured. A breathalyser test revealed the presence of alcohol in the applicant’s breath. However, the applicant was acquitted of the criminal charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

In connection with the accident, the passenger instituted civil proceedings against the applicant and his insurer, seeking pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. The insurer brought an incidental action against the driver seeking to exclude its own liability, alleging that the insurance policy excluded coverage for damages arising out of driving under the influence of alcohol. The Greek civil courts ultimately upheld the insurer’s position and also held that the civil courts were not bound by the applicant’s criminal acquittal.

Before the European Court of Human Rights, the applicant alleged that the imposition of civil liability on him despite his previous acquittal breached the principle of presumption of innocence. In his view, the finding of the civil court that he was driving under the influence of alcohol was inconsistent with the findings of the criminal court, which acquitted him of the charge. The applicant alleged that the civil court had disregarded the final and binding judgment of acquittal, issuance of which should have had the effect of excluding his civil liability.

The ECtHR judgment

The ECtHR first stated that it did not agree with the view that the applicant’s acquittal alone automatically absolved him of any civil liability. Indeed, it recalled that the guarantee of the presumption of innocence (Art. 6 §2 of the European Convention on Human Rights) primarily concerns criminal trials and refers, among other things, to the burden of proof, factual and legal presumptions, and the absence of an obligation to prove one’s own innocence. Its purpose is also to protect persons who have been acquitted or against whom criminal proceedings have been discontinued from being treated by the public authorities as if they were guilty of a criminal offence.

The court noted that in this case the civil proceedings were not only commenced later, but were also conducted by a different panel of judges. Therefore, they were not a continuation of the criminal proceedings, meaning that the outcome of the criminal proceedings did not have to affect the judgment of the civil court, and thus the scope of the presumption of innocence could be limited there.

The ECtHR pointed out that the civil court was free to determine the circumstances of the case and to take and evaluate evidence to that end. This was also true of evidence in the criminal proceedings (e.g. breath alcohol measurements), which the civil court could give different weight to or even find unreliable. At the same time, in the civil proceedings, the court could rely on evidence presented by all parties, including evidence not presented in the earlier criminal proceedings (e.g. testimony of witnesses stating that the applicant had spent the entire night at a bar, consumed several drinks, and drove well over the speed limit).

Therefore, the ECtHR endorsed the position of the Greek civil courts that the insurer was entitled to rely on the contractual clause excluding liability, regardless of whether the defendant was acquitted. It recognised that issues relating to the validity of an insurance contract should be determined on the basis of rules of civil law, not criminal law.

The court also stressed that when passing a judgment in civil proceedings after the final and binding conclusion of a criminal case, courts must be particularly careful not to allow any breach of the presumption of innocence. Specifically, such a civil judgment should address only the issue of breach of the insurance contract, not responsibility for the crime of driving while intoxicated. The task of the civil court is to rule on the imputation or exclusion of civil liability set out in a given contract, not to find that a crime has been committed. Only then does a judgment of a civil court finding liability not infringe the principle of presumption of innocence.

Implications of the ECtHR judgment for national dealings and proceedings

The ruling of the ECtHR reaffirms well-established principles regarding the impact of a criminal judgment on a pending civil action, and thus civil liability.

The rule stated in the first sentence of Art. 1 of the Polish Civil Procedure Code, that the findings of a final criminal conviction are binding on a court in civil proceedings, is consistent with the standards developed by the ECtHR. But in the Polish legal system, final acquittals do not exert this effect (Supreme Court of Poland, resolution of a seven-judge panel of 28 April 1983, case no. III CZP 14/83). This also means that a civil court must respect the principle of presumption of innocence if there was no final conviction of a party to the proceedings, but this obligation has a special dimension.

Civil proceedings brought independently of criminal proceedings cannot be regarded as a continuation of criminal proceedings, as no prior criminal proceedings are necessary to initiate them. Nor is there any question of “continuation” if stayed civil proceedings are resumed after criminal proceedings have become final.

Therefore, such civil proceedings constitute a separate process, in which neither the shifting of the burden of proof to the respondent nor requiring him to provide evidence to the court to exclude his liability can be regarded as a breach of the guarantees stated in Art. 6 §2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Here, the presumption of innocence only lies in the fact that a civil court will not have the power to find that the defendant is guilty of a crime, as only the criminal court has jurisdiction to do so (Warsaw Court of Appeal judgment of 12 October 2011, case no. I ACa 326/11).

Finally, the guidance from the ECtHR is relevant for shaping contractual relations, including in the area of third-party liability insurance. It confirms that such relations can be framed broadly, so that performance or non-performance of a contract can be dependent or independent of the imputation of an offence to a party to the contract. This means that in order to fully respect the standards set by the ECtHR, general insurance conditions need not make the driver’s liability conditional on a final conviction by a criminal court. They can make that liability contingent on a finding that the driver breached the contract by causing harm while driving under the influence of alcohol.

Aleksandra Połatyńska, Artur Pietryka, adwokat, Business Crime practice, Wardyński & Partners