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What is the Difference Between a Criminal and a Civil Case?

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There are two separate areas of law that make up the justice system: criminal and civil. Criminal cases are seen as a wrong against society. Criminal behavior is normally more serious, and the punishment is usually imprisonment or fines. Criminal acts usually involve some level of intent on the part of the bad actor. Additionally, the state or federal government (the prosecution) initiates criminal cases and must prove the elements of the crime.

Civil cases are wrongs against other private parties. Civil wrongs, in the personal injury context, can also be intentional but are usually a result of negligence or carelessness. These claims are pursued by the injured party (the plaintiff) against the party they claim caused the harm (the defendant). In civil personal injury cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care that was breached and caused them actual harm.

Criminal trial procedures are also different from civil trial procedures. The general stages of a criminal trial are bail, arraignment, preliminary hearing, pre-trial hearing, trial, and sentencing. In civil trials, the essential stages are pleading, discovery, and trial.

Goals of Criminal and Civil Cases

Best Lawyers CoverThe purposes of criminal and civil cases are very different. Criminal cases generally serve the purposes of prevention, public safety, and punishment. Criminal fines and incarceration are meant both to punish wrongdoers and to prevent others from committing crimes, while keeping criminals away from the public serves to protect society as a whole. The goal of a criminal case is not compensating the victim and the victim rarely receives any money for damages.

Generally, civil cases are meant to compensate the injured party. Money awards (called “compensatory damages”) compensate the plaintiff for their pain and suffering, their lost wages, and their medical bills and doctor visits. These recovered damages aim to make the plaintiff whole or put the plaintiff back in the same situation they were in before the injury. Sometimes punitive damages are also awarded. These damages are money awards above just compensation that are meant as punishment of the offending party and are awarded only in situations of “gross” or extreme negligence.

Standards of Proof Are Different in Criminal and Civil Cases

The biggest difference between criminal and civil law is the “standard of proof.” This is the level of certainty required for the judge or jury to decide the case. In criminal cases, the “burden of proof” is on the prosecution, meaning that it is their duty to prove or disprove the facts of the case. The prosecution must convince the jury that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means the jury must be sure that the defendant is guilty. As a percentage, this would be 99.9% certain. If there is any question of innocence, the jury would have to come to a “not guilty” verdict.

In civil cases, the standard of proof is lower and the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff. Generally, the standard is a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means that the side that is more convincing– even if only slightly– will win the verdict. Anything greater than 50% certainty is enough.

Criminal trials use a higher burden of proof than civil trials because of the potential that the defendant loses their life or liberty if convicted, while civil defendants only have to pay damages if the plaintiff wins the case.

Can I Have a Criminal and a Civil Case at the Same Time?

Yes, criminal and civil cases can arise from the same circumstances.

This scenario became widely known in the O.J. Simpson case. As most will remember, NFL star O.J. Simpson allegedly murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson was acquitted in the criminal case, but was held liable in the following civil wrongful death case filed by the families of the victims. This difference in outcome created significant confusion at the time. It is difficult to understand how justice was served when a jury found Simpson not guilty in one case and liable in another. However, this result is explained by the different standards of proof required in criminal and civil cases.

Another circumstance where this often arises in personal injury is DUI cases. Driving while under the influence is a crime, but the injuries caused by the drunk driver can be compensated in a simultaneous civil case.

Criminal cases and civil cases are complex. Navigating either or both is difficult and confusing, but an experienced personal injury lawyer from Regan Zambri Long, PLLC, can provide help and guidance.

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