The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Trials

by jeremy on April 5, 2012

When a person commits an act that is both illegal and causes financial harm to another, that person potentially exposes his or herself to both criminal and civil liability. This can result in two separate and distinct trials, which can have surprisingly different results.

The most famous case of dual criminal and civil trials happened in the mid ‘90s when O.J. Simpson was accused of murder. After O.J. was found not guilty at his criminal trial, the families of the victims brought suit in civil court alleging O.J. was liable for the wrongful death of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. Despite the fact the jury in the criminal case returned a not guilty verdict, the jury in the civil case found O.J. liable for the deaths of the victims and ordered a payment of millions of dollars to the families.

Why the different result? Well, although both cases dealt with the same issue (did O.J. kill Simpson and Goldman?) there is a different standard of proof in criminal and civil trials. To be guilty of a criminal charge, the prosecution must show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the act. This is the highest standard of proof in our legal system. However to be found liable in a civil suit, the plaintiff need only show a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the alleged act. This is a much lower standard of proof. Therefore, although O.J.’s legal team was able to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the criminal jury over whether he committed the murder, they were unable to convince the civil jury that it was more likely than not that he was not involved in the victim’s deaths.

As a result of the civil trial, O.J. was found liable financially for the deaths of Simpson and Goldman. Although he did not lose his freedom, he was ordered to make the families whole for the loss in the form of a payment, determined by the jury, of $33.5 million.

For almost any crime that involves a victim, there exists the possibility of an additional civil suit being brought as well. However, the vast majority of the time no civil suit is ever filed. There are several reasons for this. For one, punishment for many crimes include automatic restitution where a defendant found guilty must pay the victim for his or her loss. The main reason civil suits are uncommon, however, is the fact that most defendants simply don’t have the enough wealth to make a costly civil suit worthwhile.

If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to realize the possibility of a civil suit being brought against you, even if the criminal charges are dismissed or you are found not guilty at trial. Contact us for a confidential and free evaluation of your case.

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