Almost everyone has heard of situations where a defendant was charged with a criminal act and was later the target of a personal injury or even a wrongful death lawsuit (remember the OJ Simpson case?). On this page, a personal injury and accident lawyer will explain why a verdict in a criminal case, either favorable or unfavorable, does not prevent the filing of a civil lawsuit against the same defendant (or defendants), even if the facts in both cases are virtually identical.
Criminal Trials versus Civil Lawsuits
The body of law makes a distinction between “criminal” law, which are “injuries” sustained by some governmental unit that is acting to protect its citizens and the “civil” law that governs the interactions between individuals. The state has an entire law enforcement system to punish those that violate its laws, but private individual must rely on lawsuits if they seek payment for some injury from another individual.
“Crimes” against the state and “injuries” to the individual
In a criminal trial, it is the state or some other governmental unit that makes an accusation that a specific law has been violated. In such cases the state is acting on behalf of its citizens under the legal doctrine that the state has an obligation to protect its citizens from actions that are harmful to public safety. Since the “state” is the injured party in a criminal case, it is the “state” that receives any money due from the defendant in the form of any fine that may be ordered by the court.
As an example, in every state it is a crime to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol because of the danger that an impaired driver might cause an accident that injures others. If an impaired driver causes an accident that injures (or even kills) others, it is the state that files criminal charges and punishes the driver rather than an individual citizen. In the resulting criminal trial, the state has no legal authority to force that driver to compensate those that were injured.
The legal philosophy supporting a civil lawsuit holds that an individual has the right to be compensated for any injuries or losses that were the direct consequences of the negligence or wrongful actions of another. Thus, a civil lawsuit is an action involving individuals rather than the state acting on behalf of its citizens and any damages that may be awarded by the court are due the individual rather than a court acting as an agent of the state. This can be explained in another example.
In the impaired driver example presented above, the driver had a choice regarding whether he or she should drive. By choosing to drive, the driver violated a law and caused an accident. However, since there is no law specifically prohibiting accidentally injuring others, it is up to the injured parties (or their surviving family) to file a civil lawsuit asking that they be compensated for their injuries and/or other losses.
Although the constitutions of each state, and the United States Constitution, specifically prohibits re-prosecution of a defendant after that defendant has been acquitted on a criminal charge, this “Double Jeopardy” protection does not extend to preventing a civil lawsuit. Since a civil lawsuitdoes not carry the risk of imprisonment, anddoes not allege to directly punish a criminal act, the prohibition of double jeopardy does not apply.
The distinctions regarding criminal and civil cases that are presented above are not absolute. This means that there are certain cases where the legal definition of an “individual” can be extended to include groups which, of course, are composed of many individuals. The most common example of this exception is the class action lawsuit, where a group has been harmed in some way by the actions of a single defendant or a small group of defendants and have “pooled” their cases into a single lawsuit that, if successful, will benefit the entire group.
The defendant in a criminal trial has been charged with the violation of a specific law and is thus at risk of being of being sent to jail or prison if convicted. On the other hand, even if a defendant in a civil lawsuit is found to be liable for damages resulting from their actions, that defendant 1) cannot be imprisoned if they lose the lawsuit and 2) a civil lawsuit benefits the injured party rather than the state.
As in other areas of law, there can be instances in which the distinction between criminal and civil law is not as obvious as it might appear. Anyone having questions regarding the filing of a civil lawsuit when the actions of a potential defendant may have violated a law should discuss such matters with an accident attorney who is familiar with how such cases are handled in the state where the accident or other injuries occurred.