How to Determine if a Personal Injury Case is Civil, Criminal, or Both
Personal injury cases are often associated with accidents, such as trip and falls, wrongful deaths, and work-related incidents. Most of the time they are determined by the amount of compensation transacted, either by settlement or a court verdict. There is virtually no jail time for the perpetrators unless a criminal act can be proven. This raises a particularly curious question as to the possibility of personal injury cases being processed as both civil and criminal.
Civil cases are those relating to private rights and involve an individual or an organizational entity against another in civil court. This includes custody disputes, defamation, housing neglect, property damage, bankruptcy, contract disputes, car accident injuries, etc. Criminal cases, on the other hand, involve crimes and are always prosecuted by the State against the individual or entity in criminal court. These types of cases include assault, homicide, sexual harassment, driving under the influence, conspiracy, possession of a controlled substance, obstruction of justice,and more.
If you intentionally hurt someone, it would be assault. If you accidentally collide with another vehicle while driving, you may be charged with a traffic violation, but probably not with assault.
Settlements Make the Difference
Both civil and criminal cases can be settled before a verdict, but civil cases are more likely to be negotiated out of court. In fact, an overwhelming majority of civil personal injury cases do not even make it to the trial stage.
In a criminal case, the defendant may only bargain and accept a plea deal as a form of settlement. Both outcomes are likely to include fines, jail time, and/or probation as part of the sentence. However, all fines go to the state, not to the victims of the crime.
Civil cases also have a bit more flexibility as they are often settled out of court without the intervention of a judge or jury. That’s not possible in criminal cases, since even plea deals are strictly subject to a judge’s approval or rejection.
Evidence Determines the Outcome
In both types of cases, the parties involved must support the claims they make in order to win the case. In criminal cases, the burden of proof rests with the prosecutor who must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant did what he or she was accused of.
The burden of evidence is substantially less strict when it comes to civil cases. A law firm representing a civil plaintiff typically only requires a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means there is only a 50 percent chance that their claim is true.
The result also depends on the type of jury that is appointed. Sometimes a case may be tried criminally, but then dismissed and refiled in civil court. This is because the evidence is more likely to exceed the required civil threshold than its criminal counterpart. This is most common in a case that goes from criminal to civil, not the other way around.
Why Corporations are Vulnerable to Both
Companies are considered legal entities and may be held criminally liable for illegal actions taken by directors, officers, employees, or representatives of a third party associated with the company.
Companies cannot legally go to jail, but they can be fined and placed on probation. This means their activities are supervised by the federal or state government. Executives or employees can be sentenced to jail time, but the prosecutor must bring separate criminal charges against that particular person. This can often prolong the process and discourage a plaintiff from continuing a case to avoid racking up legal fees.
Product liability cases where a company has acted with criminal negligence or knowingly misled consumers are most often sued in both civil and criminal courts.
All in All
Keep in mind that criminal codes vary from state to state and only the government can initiate criminal proceedings. You or your attorney cannot decide that the case is criminal and start litigation to send the defendant to prison. However, a lot can be found during the discovery process of a civil case, and if there is evidence of prior intent to knowingly commit a crime, then criminal charges can be filed after the civil case begins.