Evidence of a guilty plea that has not been withdrawn with the permission of the court or a judgment in a criminal action is admissible as a binding admission in a subsequent civil suit arising out of the same conduct.114 Similarly, the entry of a “Robinson plea,” in which a party agrees to plead guilty but does not admit actual commission of the offense charged,115 is admissible in a subsequent civil action against the party who entered the plea.116 By contrast, a plea of nolo contendere, where the defendant neither admits nor denies guilt but merely states that he or she will not contest the charge, is not admissible in a subsequent suit against the party making the plea.117
A plea of guilty to a traffic offense is admissible in a subsequent civil trial because it acts as an admission by the pleading party of the conduct underlying the charge which, in a civil trial for negligence, for example, may form the basis for establishing negligence per se.117.1 By contrast, the fact that a criminal charge has or has not been brought against a party (as opposed to a conviction) is inadmissible in a civil trial because of the risk that the jure may find the presence or absence of criminal culpability determinative on the issue of civil liability, as well as the threat that the jury will be influenced by the fact that the police found (or did not find) one of the parties to be at fault.117.2
114. McNally v. Eckman, 466 A.2d 363, 369 (Del. 1983); Boyd v. Hammond, 187 A.2d 413, 416 (Del. 1963); State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Hackendorn, 605 A.2d 3, 10 (Del. Super. 1991); Ralston v. Ralston, 72 A.2d 441, 442 (Del. Super. 1950); State v. Lynch, 28 A.2d 163, 167 (Del. Gen. Sess. 1942); Hendle v. Geiler, 50 A. 632 (Del. 1895). See also D.R.E. 410.
115. Robinson v. State, 291 A.2d 279 (Del. 1972).
116. Insurance Co. of North America v. Dubroff, C.A. No. 6316, slip op. at 3, Hartnett, V.C. (Del. Ch. Feb. 1, 1993).
117. D.R.E. 410. See also McNally v. Eckman, 466 A.2d 363, 369 (Del. 1983); V. F. W. Holding Co. v. Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Comm., 252 A.2d 122, 123 n.l (Del. Super. 1969) (discussing common-law rule).
117.1. Laws v. Webb, 658 A.2d 1000, 1008 (Del 1995); Boyd v. Hammond, 187 A.2d 413, 416 (Del. 1963).
117.2. Laws v. Webb, 658 A.2d 1000, 1009 (Del 1995). See also Bierczynski v. Rogers, 239 A.2d 218, 227 (Del. 1968).
© 2010 David L. Finger