How could this be?
Civil and criminal law are very different, and some actions can lead to both criminal charges and civil suits. Therefore, both types of cases can bring harsh consequences if you’re found to be in the wrong.
The Basics: Civil vs. Criminal Laws
Two types of law make up the American legal system: civil law and criminal law. Both sets of laws outline outline legal rights and responsibilities that everyone must comply with, but there are significant differences between civil law and criminal law.
Civil lawsuits typically involve private disputes between people, companies or organizations. In most civil cases, the victim is the plaintiff who files the lawsuit. If you have been harmed by a person, whether physically, financially, or, in some cases, emotionally, you can force that person or company to compensate you through the civil law.
Common types of civil cases include:
- Auto accidents;
- Slip and Fall cases;
- Defamation claims;
- Wrongful death lawsuits;
- Medical malpractice claims;
- Divorce and family law cases; and
- Administrative cases.
Criminal laws describe illegal actions that are harmful to society as a whole. Sometimes criminal acts have a specific victim, such as murder or kidnapping. However, even “victimless” crimes like drunk driving or drug possession cause harm to the community.
In criminal cases, the State or the U.S. government presses charges against an individual who is accused of breaking the law. The prosecutor in a criminal case does not represent the victim of a crime – the prosecutor represents the state, or society, or the federal government, but never the victim of a crime.
Common types of criminal cases include:
- Violent crimes such as assault and battery, kidnapping, or murder;
- Disorderly conduct and breach of peace;
- Criminal Domestic violence (CDV);
- Drug crimes such as possession, distribution, or trafficking;
- DUI offenses including felony DUI;
- Traffic violations like speeding, driving under suspension(DUS), or reckless driving.
Key Differences Between Civil and Criminal Law
There are important differences between civil and criminal cases at every step of legal proceedings.
1. How does each type of case begin?
A civil suit starts when the plaintiff files an action claiming that the defendant caused him or her some harm.
A criminal case begins when the state or federal government charges the defendant with an arrest warrant, ticket, or indictment that, accuses him or her of committing a crime, and then prosecutes the defendant.
2. What happens if you lose?
If you’re the defendant in a civil case and you lose, then you will be ordered to pay damages in an amount determined by the jurors in your trial.
Civil lawsuits are not criminal in nature and therefore there is no “punishment” per se – although punitive damages are an option in some cases where the defendant acted intentionally or was grossly negligent.
A criminal defendant who loses their trial or pleads guilty is subject to punishments that could include a fine, probation, or prison time.
3. What is the difference in the standard of proof?
There’s a lower standard of proof in civil cases than in criminal cases.
In a civil case, the “preponderance of the evidence” is enough for the judge or jury to decide the case. This means that you must prove that it is more likely than not – or more than 50% likely – that the defendant is liable to you for the damages that you are asking for.
The standard of proof is higher in criminal cases due to the harsher punishments the defendant will suffer if he or she is convicted.
In a criminal case, the evidence has to prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom in the world.
A reasonable doubt is not strictly defined, but the court will often instruct the jurors that a reasonable doubt “is the kind of doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act – it’s a doubt for which you can give a reason.”
4. How do civil and criminal trials differ?
Whether your trial is civil or criminal, you are most likely going to try your case to a jury although there are some exceptions.
The rules of discovery are different – believe it or not, the courts give more discovery rights to civil litigants in SC such as written interrogatories and depositions of witnesses prior to trial.
The rules of evidence are the same in civil or in criminal court, although as a practical matter the cases are tried differently. The most important difference is the potential outcome of the case – whereas in a civil trial we are fighting over money, in a criminal case we are often fighting for our client’s freedom.
5. Does the defendant have the right to an attorney?
In civil cases, the defendant is not guaranteed an attorney. Once a lawsuit has been filed and served on a defendant, they must either retain counsel, turn the case over to their insurance company if they will provide counsel, or defend the case pro-se.
There are time limits to respond to a civil lawsuit, and failure to retain counsel or respond within the deadline can result in a default judgment or other negative consequences.
In most criminal cases, the defendant is constitutionally entitled to an attorney. If the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the State must provide him or her with a public defender if the charges will result in a prison sentence. In South Carolina, the courts often do not provide you with a defense attorney if you are charged in the lower magistrate or municipal courts.
Can the Same Action Result in Both a Civil and Criminal Case?
Yes, sometimes, one illegal or wrongful action can result in both a civil suit and a criminal case.
Remember how O.J. Simpson had both a criminal trial and a civil suit?
He was found not guilty of killing his wife and her lover in his criminal murder trial and was therefore acquitted. However, Simpson lost the civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by the families of the deceased, because the standard of proof in the civil trial was lower than in the criminal trial. The families of the deceased were awarded $33.5 million in damages.
Get Help for Your Civil or Criminal Case.
Whether you’re involved in a civil suit or a criminal case, getting legal advice from an experienced lawyer is the best move you can make.
Our team at Coastal Law has experience with both criminal defense cases and civil lawsuits. Let us help you work toward the best possible outcome for your case.
Schedule a free, no-strings-attached consultation with one of our lawyers. Just fill out our online form or call (843) 488-5000.