As I have been writing other blog posts, it occurs to me that some readers may not fully understand the difference between the civiljustice system, and the criminal justice system. I have been asked a lot of questions about this in the past, and heard many misconceptions. I thought I would set forth a brief, and hopefully helpful explanation.
Criminal cases are filed by the local prosecuting attorney (County Attorney or Commonwealth Attorney in the Kentucky state courts, and U.S. Attorney in the federal courts) against individuals who are accused of breaking the law. The person charged faces criminal penalties such as jail time, fines and community service, not to mention a criminal record that could affect a person for the rest of his/her life.
Civil cases (lawsuits) are filed by private attorneys (attorneys who do not work for the government) and usually are seeking monetary compensation. Civil cases do not threaten anyone with jail time or a criminal record. If for example, a person is accused in a civil lawsuit of being negligent in causing a car accident, that person does not face any kind of criminal charge. There are some cases, such as car accident involving a drunk driver, wherein the drunk driver could face both criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit filed by an injured party. But the civil lawsuit is completely separate from the criminal prosecution.
I practice law in the arena of the civil justice system. There are many types of civil lawsuits that can be filed. However, my focus is on personal injury lawsuits, which is one type of civil lawsuit. The person filing the lawsuit is known as the “Plaintiff”. In an injury lawsuit, the Plaintiff is seeking monetary compensation from the person who caused his/her injury, known as the “Defendant”. Although a lawsuit is filed directly against the Defendant in his or her name, monetary damages are normally paid by the insurance company that insures the Defendant. This is true whether this is a car accident case, medical malpractice case, or slip and fall case (just to name a few).
The final stage of both civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions is a trial by jury. Many people may not realize, however, that only a very small percentage of criminal or civil cases are actually tried by a jury. The vast majority of both civil and criminal cases are resolved long before the matter goes to trial. Jury trials are very unpredictable. Whether it is a criminal case, or a civil case, both sides recognize the possibility that the jury verdict may not go the way they want. A resolution of the matter provides certainty, and reduces risks to both sides.
In most criminal cases, a “plea agreement” is reached, whereby the Defendant and prosecuting attorney agree on a deal that will result in the Defendant pleading guilty to a lesser charge, but still receiving some type of punishment. This will avoid a trial and the possibility of an extremely bad result for either side (an acquittal on one extreme, a “guilty” verdict of a more serious charge on the other extreme).
Similarly, in most civil cases, an agreement, or “settlement” is reached before a jury trial occurs. Many settlements actually occur before a lawsuit is ever filed. Settlements can occur at any stage in a lawsuit, including immediately before a jury verdict is announced. A settlement guarantees that a Plaintiff will receive some compensation (although perhaps not as much as the Plaintiff would like to obtain) and also avoids the risk to the Defendant’s insurance company of having to pay for a large jury verdict.
Another difference between the civil justice system and the criminal justice system is the standard that the jury applies in rendering a verdict.
Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt”. This is the standard that applies in a criminal jury trial. If even one member of the jury has a reasonable doubt as to whether the Defendant is guilty of the crime, the Defendant must be found “not guilty”. This “burden of proof” on the prosecutor in a criminal case is often difficult to meet.
If a civil personal injury case goes before a jury, the jury will be asked to decide whether, “by a preponderance of the evidence” the Defendant was negligent in causing harm to the Plaintiff”. In other words is it “more probable than not” that the Defendant was negligent. If so, the jury must find for the Plaintiff. The “burden of proof” that a Plaintiff must meet in a civil jury trial is much lower than the burden that the prosecution has to meet in a criminal jury trial.
I hope this was informative. If you have any questions about this subject, give me a call or send me a message.