Did Girlfriend Have Defense to Estate’s Civil Suit?
On April 19, 2015, Vincent A Viafore and Angelika Graswald were kayaking in separate kayaks in the Hudson River in Orange County, New York. The weather that day was cold and windy, with water temperature in the 40’s. Viafore was not wearing a life vest or a wet suit. Viafore and Graswald entered the Hudson River from Plum Point Park in Orange County and went to what is commonly known as “Bannermans Island,” an island in the Hudson River slightly southeast of the Plum Point. The couple spent about two hours hiking the island before disembarking back to Plum Point. Viafore and Graswald left the island at about 7:00 p.m. The waters were rough, it was windy, and it was getting dark. Viafore’s kayak paddle was missing a locking clip and had no drain plug, as it was removed by Graswald. While crossing the Hudson, Viaore’s kayak began to take on water and began to sink. Viafore exited his kayak and entered the river. Ultimately, he drowned in the river.
Graswald was arrested and charged with Second Degree Murder and Second Degree Manslaughter. On June 24, 2017, the case against Graswald was resolved by her plea to Criminally Negligent Homicide.
Viafore’s estate sued Graswald for wrongful death and moved for partial summary judgment on liability. The estate alleged that partial summary judgment was warranted. Graswald, by her own admission, acknowledged and admitted under oath to causing the wrongful death and conscious pain and suffering of Viafore. Graswald was made aware that her plea of guilty had the same legal significance as a verdict of guilty after trial.
Where a criminal conviction is based upon facts identical to those in issue in a related civil action, the plaintiff in the civil action can successfully invoke the doctrine of collateral estoppel to bar the convicted defendant from re-litigating the issue of her liability. All that is required to give rise to the bar of collateral estoppel in the civil action is that the plaintiff demonstrate that there was identity of the issues and that the defendant had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues in the criminal action.
Graswald’s guilty plea to Criminally Negligent Homicide was sufficient to collaterally estop her from re-litigating the issue of whether her negligence was a proximate cause of the incident on April 19, 2015. However, the estate’s submissions failed to establish as a matter of law that Viafore was free from culpable conduct with regard to the causation of his injuries and ultimate death. The estate’s submissions, including the affirmation of counsel, plea transcript and the pleadings, failed to establish as a matter of law that Viafore was free from culpable conduct with regard to the causation.
Graswald’s plea allocution included her acknowledgment of blameworthy conduct so serious that it contributed to a substantial and unjustifiable risk that Viafore’s death would occur. She admitted that she failed to perceive the substantial and unjustifiable risk of death of her conduct. Additionally, throughout the transcript, the dangers of both the river and the unpreparedness of the parties were emphasized. Particularly, Graswald indicated that she knew, as Viafore presumably did, that it was cold and windy with water temperatures in the 40’s. Viafore was neither wearing a life jacket nor wet suit. Upon attempting to return to Plum Point, the river was rougher, windier, and it was getting darker. By highlighting those portions of Graswald’s plea allocution, the Court was not making a finding that Viafore bore responsibility for his injuries/death; rather, the Court intended to merely highlight conduct, submitted by the estate, which the jury could find contributed to Viafore’s injuries/death.
What’s more, Graswald’s answer raised the affirmative defense of comparative negligence, thereby putting into issue the relative degrees of culpability between the Viafore and Graswald.
The estates motion for summary judgment was denied.