If courtroom dramas are to be believed, the American legal system is made up entirely of politically driven prosecutors and hardscrabble public defenders who battle it out in ripped-from-the-headlines cases. While these shows do provide a glimpse into the criminal justice system, albeit a heavily dramatized and distorted one, the stories very rarely focus on what happens in civil cases. As a result, many people are unfamiliar with even the most basic tenets of civil law, including that it uses a completely different standard for determining liability.
If you were seriously injured in an accident caused by another person's negligence, Delaware's civil personal injury laws provide the legal avenue that makes it possible to pursue compensation for damages from the at-fault party. Understanding civil law's standards of guilt—as well as other distinctions between civil and criminal law—can help you decide if filing a civil lawsuit is right for you.
Civil Versus Criminal Cases
The burden of proof isn't the only thing that differentiates civil law from its TV-ready counterpart. The purpose behind the two types of law are different as well: While criminal cases address crimes or infractions against society, civil cases address legal disputes between individuals (or between an individual and an organization). This important distinction also affects who can bring cases – civil cases are brought by individuals or entities representing their own interests, whereas criminal cases are brought a prosecuting attorney who is acting as a representative of the local, state or federal government.
The potential punishments for civil and criminal cases are vastly divergent. Civil defendants face the possibility of compensatory or punitive damages, while criminal defendants can face significant jail or prison time, in addition to fines.
Differing Standards of Guilt
In both civil and criminal cases, the plaintiff or the prosecution must gather and present evidence that sufficiently convinces the judge and/or jury of the defendant's liability. However, the standard for determining liability in criminal cases is completely different from the standard of liability used in civil cases. The following is an overview:
- Criminal cases. In these cases, prosecutors must prove the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” meaning that the evidence is so overwhelming that no reasonable person could doubt the defendant's guilt. Equating to approximately 95 percent certainty, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the highest legal standard in the American justice system.
- Civil cases. Plaintiffs in civil cases must prove their cases by “the preponderance of evidence,” meaning that they must convince the judge or jury that the claims made in their lawsuit are more likely true than not. Liability by “the preponderance of evidence” requires more than 50 percent.
Civil? Criminal? Or Both?
What makes the distinctions between civil and criminal law even more cloudy for the layman is the fact that both civil and criminal cases can arise from the same conduct. O.J. Simpson's famous criminal and civil cases are a perfect example. In 1994, Simpson was charged, and subsequently acquitted, in the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Although Simpson was found “not guilty” and “won” the criminal trial, he lost his wrongful death and battery cases in civil court, and was ordered to pay millions of dollars to the families of the victims. The differing burden of proof used in criminal and civil cases likely played a role in these vastly different outcomes.
Are You Considering Filing a Civil Lawsuit?
If you or someone you love were injured in an accident that wasn't your fault, you shouldn't be left holding the bag for medical bills, vehicle repair or replacement costs, or other expenses. A knowledgeable, experienced personal injury attorney can help you seek compensation that can help you get your life back on track.
Still not sure if you have a personal injury case? Contact the Morris James Personal Injury Group today to schedule a no-cost initial case consultation. Our skilled legal team can go over the details of your case with you and help you explore your legal options.