Tolling civil statutes of limitation for criminal prosecutions

A colleague recently brought to my attention CPLR 215(8), an interesting statute that may have implications for criminal practitioners who also handle personal injury cases.  CPLR 215 generally governs the statute of limitations — one year — for intentional torts such as assault, battery, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, libel, and slander.

CPLR 215(8) provides an exception to the one year limitations period when "it is shown that a criminal action against the same defendant has been commenced with respect to the event or occurrence from which a claim governed by this section arises."  The plaintiff then has one year from the termination of the criminal prosecution to the bring the civil lawsuit "notwithstanding that the time in which to commence such action has already expired or has less than a year remaining."  (For sex crimes, the grace period is 5 years, not 1.)  For the definition of termination, CPLR 215(8) directs the reader to CPL § 1.20, which provides that a criminal action is terminated with the imposition of sentence "or some other final disposition in a criminal court of the last accusatory instrument filed in the case."

There are obvious policy benefits to this statute for all involved:

  • For the defendant, he is not forced to litigate two cases at the same time, particularly since the civil action could require him to present his own evidence to defend against a motion for summary judgment.
  • Conceivably, a defendant could negotiation a global settlement of both the criminal and civil actions.  If the plaintiff-victim wants restitution more than imprisonment/punishment, he or she can notify the prosecution of that interest.
  • For the plaintiff-victim, he or she may be able to see how the People's evidence — which will probably his or her own evidence later on — at trial develops. 

There are downsides, however.  A defendant might not necessarily receive notice of the civil action.  Having resolved a criminal action, he may move on with his life, only to discover — a year later — that he is being sued civilly.  Evidence may be lost, etc.

My colleague and I are interested to see how this statute works in practice.  If you have any anecdotes to share concerning CPLR 215(8), please contact me at cunninl1@stjohns.edu.  (LC)

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