Pénal et civil : de moins en moins liés

Depuis l’écriture du code pénal par Napoléon, la justice pénale avait pré-éminence sur la justice civile.Plus précisément, lorsqu’une affaire était soumise à la justice pénale, la décision de cette dernière était considérée comme s’imposant à la justice civile.

Cette pré-éminence avait pour but d’éviter toute contradiction entre une décision pénale et une décision civile lorsque la victime d’un dommage pouvait s’adresser à l’un ou à l’autre ordre de juridiction.

Cette règle consacrait également le fait que le procès pénal bénéficie des moyens d’investigations de la puissance publique (juge d’instruction, police judiciaire, etc.).

Ce principe était édicté à l’article 4 du code de procédure pénale qui disposait que :

« L’action civile peut être aussi exercée séparément de l’action publique.

Toutefois, il est sursis au jugement de cette action exercée devant la juridiction civile tant qu’il n’a pas été prononcé définitivement sur l’action publique lorsque celle-ci a été mise en mouvement. »

On résumait fréquemment cet article par l’ adage « le criminel tient le civil en l’état »

Mais cet article a eu des effets pervers.

En effet, il suffisait de saisir le juge pénal, par le biais d’une constitution de partie civile devant le juge d’instruction ou le tribunal correctionnel, pour contraindre le juge civil à surseoir à statuer lorsqu’il était saisi de faits identiques à ceux dont était saisi le juge pénal.

Résultat, les juridictions pénales ont été submergées au fil du temps par des plaintes sans fondement, déposées dans le seul but de bloquer la juridiction civile, étant rappelé que cette dernière est souvent plus rapide que la justice pénale et surtout qu’elle laisse au demandeur la conduite de la procédure.

Trois dispositions sont venues atténuer la rigueur du principe édicté par l’article 4 du Code de procédure pénale.

1. La loi n° 96-393 du 13 mai 1996 a tout d’abord créé un article 470-1 dans le code de procédure pénale.

En vertu de cet article, en cas de relaxe dans une poursuite pour une infraction non intentionnelle, le tribunal saisi par le ministère public ou par renvoi d’une juridiction d’instruction, demeure compétent, sur demande de la partie civile ou de son assureur, pour accorder réparation selon les règles du droit civil de tous les dommages résultant des faits qui ont fondé la poursuite.

Autrement dit, l’absence d’infraction pénale définie précisément par un texte de loi et appliquée rigoureusement par la juridiction pénale ne fait pas obstacle à l’examen par cette même juridiction de l’existence d’une faute appréciée selon les règles du droit civil.

Un arrêt rendu le 5 juin 2007 par la Cour de cassation ((Cass. Crim., 5 juin 2007, n° 06-86331, Bull. crim. n°3422.)) illustre le mécanisme procédural prévu par cet article.

Dans cette affaire, un médecin spécialisé en chirurgie plastique et réparatrice avait pratiqué sur une patiente une opération chirurgicale destinée à la faire maigrir. A la suite du décès de la patiente d’une embolie pulmonaire, le médecin était renvoyé devant le tribunal correctionnel du chef d’homicide involontaire. La cour d’appel, après avoir prononcé sa relaxe définitive du chef d’homicide involontaire, l’avait, en application de l’article 470-1 du code de procédure pénale, déclaré responsable des conséquences dommageables du décès de la victime.

Le médecin formait alors un pourvoi en cassation, dans lequel il contestait l’existence « d’une faute commise dans l’accomplissement de l’acte médical ». La Cour de cassation répond que la Cour d’appel a constaté l’existence d’une faute relative au choix du traitement chirurgical et à l’absence d’information de la patiente, faute sur laquelle elle refuse de se prononcer. Cette faute justifie la condamnation du médecin à la réparation du préjudice des ayants droit de la victime, même s’il ne s’agit pas d’une faute de nature pénale.

Ainsi, la décision de la juridiction pénale, c’est-à-dire une relaxe, n’entraîne pas nécessairement le rejet des prétentions de la partie civile sur le fondement des règles du droit civil.

2. Ensuite, la loi n° 2000-647 du 10 juillet 2000 a de nouveau atténué le principe selon lequel le pénal tient le civil en l’état en créant l’article 4-1 du Code de procédure pénale qui dispose que :

« L’absence de faute pénale non intentionnelle au sens de l’article 121-3 du code pénal ne fait pas obstacle à l’exercice d’une action devant les juridictions civiles afin d’obtenir la réparation d’un dommage sur le fondement de l’article 1383 du code civil si l’existence de la faute civile prévue par cet article est établie ou en en application de l’article L. 452-1 du code de la sécurité sociale si l’existence de la faute inexcusable prévue par cet article est établie. »

Ce texte permet au juge civil de condamner l’auteur d’un délit non intentionnel lorsque celui-ci a été relaxé au pénal en raison de l’absence d’imprudence.

Il s’agissait déjà à l’époque de contourner la rigueur de l’article 4 du Code de procédure pénale qui obligeait le juge pénal à caractériser la moindre faute d’imprudence en infraction pénale pour que la victime puisse être indemnisée.

On rappellera que cette loi avait aussi pour objet d’empêcher la condamnation au pénal de personnes pour la seule raison qu’elles étaient le représentant d’une entreprise, d’un service public ou d’une collectivité publique et alors qu’elles n’avaient pas pris une part quelconque dans la commission du délit.

3. La loi n° 2007-291 du 5 mars 2007 tendant à renforcer l’équilibre de la procédure pénale est allée encore plus loin et a largement modifié l’article 4 du code de procédure pénale.

L’article est dorénavant rédigé de la façon suivante :

« L’action civile en réparation du dommage causé par l’infraction prévue par l’article 2 peut être exercée devant une juridiction civile, séparément de l’action publique.

Toutefois, il est sursis au jugement de cette action tant qu’il n’a pas été prononcé définitivement sur l’action publique lorsque celle-ci a été mise en mouvement.

La mise en mouvement de l’action publique n’impose pas la suspension du jugement des autres actions exercées devant la juridiction civile, de quelque nature qu’elles soient, même si la décision à intervenir au pénal est susceptible d’exercer, directement ou indirectement, une influence sur la solution du procès civil. »

Désormais, le criminel ne tiendra le civil en l’état que pour l’action civile visant à obtenir des dommages et intérêts en réparation du préjudice causé par l’infraction pénale.

Le juge civil n’aura plus l’obligation de surseoir à statuer dans l’attente de la décision à intervenir au pénal.

Il est encore trop tôt pour savoir quels seront les effets d’une telle réforme : désengorgement de la juridiction pénale, contradiction de décision entre les deux ordres de juridiction, découragement des victimes, etc..

Une seule chose est sûre, l’adage « le criminel tient le civil en l’état » a largement vécu.

Justinien, Avocat au Barreau de Paris

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