Where a Crime Meets a Personal Injury: The Wrongful Conduct Rule in Connecticut

BPS is here to serve our clients during this COVID-19 crisis. Pursuant to Governor Lamont’s Executive Order, legal services are essential services. Whether or not we are in our offices, Brown Paindiris & Scott, LLP Lawyers are available by email, phone and video conference. Read More.

By Cody N. Guarnieri, Esq.

Can a plaintiff be compensated for an injury they receive because of another's conduct, but while the plaintiff was engaged in illegal or immoral activities? What about where the plaintiff was only on the defendant's property to buy drugs? As a society, we are troubled with the idea of a person financially benefiting from the commission of crime or illegal acts, even in a tenuous way.

A recent Connecticut Superior Court decision examines this question and looks to the "wrongful conduct" rule. The wrongful conduct rule is the legal concept that a person has no duty to protect another from injuries that are suffered during that person's volitional criminal conduct. Like a number of other states, the wrongful conduct rule in Connecticut seeks to ensure (1) that courts are not effectively condoning wrongful, immoral or criminal conduct, (2) that wrongdoers are not compensated for their illegal conduct, (3) that the public has confidence in the justice available through the judicial process, and (4) that wrongdoers cannot shift the responsibility of their illegal conduct to others.

However, the wrongful conduct rule may also require (1) that the illegal conduct be prohibited (as opposed to merely regulated), (2) that it be serious or involving moral turpitude and (3) a sufficient causal nexus exists between the plaintiff's conduct and his or her alleged injuries.

The wrongful conduct rule was recently discussed in the court's decision on a Motion to Strike the Defendant's Special Defense in the matter of Bruno v. Valentino, Docket No. CV19-6094043-S, Judicial District of New Haven (J. Wilson, July 21, 2020). In Bruno, the court struck a special defense that would have allowed the defendant to claim that the plaintiff cannot recover under the wrongful conduct rule. The court ultimately held that the mere fact that the plaintiff was on the defendant's property to buy drugs when he fell in the driveway did not create a sufficient nexus between the illegal activity and the injury.

In so deciding the court considered cases in other states where a sufficient nexus was found for the wrongful conduct rule to apply; such as where the wrongful conduct rule prevented a father from suing a soft drink company for the wrongful death of his son when the soft drink vending machine fell on the son while he was tilting it in an attempt to steal soft drinks in Alabama (Oden v. Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. of Decatur, Inc., 621 So. 2d 953, 954-55 (Ala.1993), or where the wrongful conduct rule prevented a person from recovering compensation for his prior methamphetamine addiction against the pharmacy who fraudulently obtained prescription from in Michigan (Orzel v. Scott Drug Co., 449 Mich. 550, 552-53, (1995)).

As a lawyer that practices in both criminal defense and civil litigation, equitable doctrines like the wrongful conduct rule come into play occasionally. A criminal defendant who was injured during the commission of his or her crime may wonder whether they have any rights of recovery. The homeowner, doctor, driver or other third-party may also be concerned about their exposure to litigation if their conduct caused an injury to another person, despite that person's having been engaged in illegal or immoral activities.

If you, a family member or friend have questions about your rights or how the wrongful conduct rule could effect a legal situation, contact me to discuss.