What’s the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Court?

Some people may remember the 1990s O.J. Simpson murder case. The erstwhile football standout was arrested and charged with a very brutal double murder. One of the victims was his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. After a very long trial, a jury declared that Simpson was not guilty.

A few years later, another California jury heard basically the same evidence and concluded that Simpson killed his ex-wife and her companion. That civil court jury ordered Simpson to pay $25 million in wrongful death damages.

How could two different juries come to opposite conclusions?


Standards of Proof in Criminal and Civil Court

In criminal court, New York prosecutors must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the highest standard of proof in the Empire State. Essentially, the state must present overwhelming evidence of guilt so that, even after the jury hears the defendant’s side of the story, “guilty” is the only reasonable conclusion.

However, in civil court, the burden of proof is only a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). That’s the lowest standard of proof in the Empire State.

Imagine two equally-sized stacks of printer paper sitting side by side. If someone moves one sheet of paper from the stack on the left to the stack on the right, the stack on the right is larger than the stack on the left.

That’s the picture of a preponderance of the evidence. No matter how much evidence the defendant has, if the victim/plaintiff has even a tiny bit more, the defendant is probably liable for damages. These damages usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Once again, the 1990s O.J. Simpson case is a good example. At the criminal trial, prosecutors presented ample evidence that Simpson was a violent man who had a bad temper. But there was almost no evidence connecting him with the double murder. So, there simply was not enough proof to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt.


Methods of Proof in Criminal and Civil Court

The types of evidence are the same in criminal and civil court. But the approach may be different.

State prosecutors use direct and/or circumstantial evidence to establish guilt. DUIs are a good example. If the defendant provided a chemical sample by blowing into a Breathalyzer, there may be direct evidence of guilt. If the defendant refused to provide a chemical sample, prosecutors must rely on circumstantial evidence, like the defendant’s performance on field sobriety tests.

A good lawyer can sometimes explain away circumstantial evidence, but it’s almost impossible to explain away direct evidence.

In civil court, a New York personal injury attorney may also use more than one method of proof to establish liability for damages. These methods are:

  • Negligence: Most people have a duty of reasonable care. If they violate that duty, and that violation causes injury, the tortfeasor (negligent actor) may be liable for damages. A third party, such as a landowner or an employer, might be liable for negligence damages as well.
  • Strict Liability: This theory usually applies in dog bite and defective product cases. In New York, pet owners may be strictly liable for medical expenses if their animals attack someone. The same thing applies to product manufacturers. In strict liability cases, victim/plaintiffs need only prove causation.
  • Negligence Per Se: Sometimes, a law establishes the standard of care. The aforementioned DUIs are a good example. If a drunk driver causes a car crash, and the driver was guilty of DUI, that driver may be liable for damages as a matter of law.

In addition to compensatory damages, additional punitive damages may be available as well, particularly in defective product cases.


Count on a New York Personal Injury Attorney

There are some significant differences between civil and criminal court. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in New York, contact Michael J. Redenburg Esq. P.C. Attorneys can connect victims with doctors, even if they have no insurance or money.