Civil Cases vs. Criminal Cases

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Generally speaking, civil and criminal cases are different in many ways right down to some of the fundamentals including whether the plaintiff or defendant has the burden of proof. For example, in a personal injury case, which is a civil claim, the plaintiff (or victim) and their personal injury lawyer will win if they are able to show a preponderance of the evidence–often explained as 51% of the evidence in favor of the plaintiff.

Outcomes in a Criminal Case vs. Outcomes in a Civil Case

Another difference between criminal law and civil law is the possible outcomes in criminal court vs. a civil trial.

Civil Case Outcomes

  • Dismissal – When all or a portion of the case is thrown out of civil court because evidence or testimony has persuaded the judge that the plaintiff cannot prove their case. Civil cases can be dismissed with prejudice—meaning final, or without prejudice—meaning the issue can be reconsidered.
  • Settlement – An official agreement where the parties agree to a monetary amount or a specific act to satisfy the dispute(s) in question. This agreement is typically subject to confidentiality and the alleged at-fault individual or entity does not admit fault by executing a settlement.
  • Judgement in Favor of the Plaintiff/Defendant – When a judgement is entered in favor of either the plaintiff or defendant by either the jury or judge, that means that that party has won. When a plaintiff has a judgment in their favor, it’s for a monetary amount or a specific act. When a judgment is in favor of the defendant, this means that the defendant was found not responsible.

Criminal Law Outcomes

The possible outcome of a criminal case might include:

  • Dismissal – when all or a portion of the criminal law case is thrown out because evidence or testimony has persuaded the judge that the State or plaintiff cannot prove their case. Criminal cases can be dismissed with prejudice, meaning final, or without prejudice, meaning the issue can be reconsidered.
  • Nolle prosequi – Latin for “we shall no longer prosecute.” At trial, this is an entry made on the record by a prosecutor in criminal cases that the charges cannot be proved or that evidence has demonstrated either innocence or a fatal flaw in the prosecution’s claim. An entry of nolle prosequi may be made at any time after charges are brought and before a verdict is returned or a plea entered. Most of the time, prosecutors need a judge’s permission to nol-pros a case.
  • Not guilty – Is a plea entered by a defendant in criminal cases. Often erroneously confused with a claim of innocence, technically a plea of not guilty simply compels the prosecution to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. When the jury (or a judge sitting without a jury) acquits a defendant after trial, they return a verdict of “not guilty,” which indicates their conclusion that the prosecution did not meet its burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Plea agreement or plea bargain – Plea bargains are agreements between defendants and prosecutors in which defendants agree to plead guilty to some or all of the charges against them in exchange for concessions from the prosecutors.
  • Guilty – Is a plea entered by a defendant in a criminal case, which admits to fault of the crime or a finding of fault by the jury.

Also note that in a criminal case where the defendant is proven guilty, the outcome may result in jail time, prison sentences, probation, community service, or other court monitoring.

Can a Criminal Case and Civil Case Be Brought for the Same Occurrence?

Can a Criminal Case and Civil Case Be Brought for the Same Occurrence InfographicYes, a criminal law case can be brought against a defendant who has been accused of violating a code or committing a crime as well as a civil lawsuit alleging fault against the same defendant.

An Example of Criminal and Civil Cases for the Same Incident

For example, the People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson was the criminal case against OJ Simpson for allegedly murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Following the criminal case, the family of victims Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, filed a civil lawsuit for wrongful death against OJ Simpson.

Does the Outcome of a Criminal Case and Civil Case Have to Be the Same?

Not necessarily. The outcome of a criminal and civil case don’t necessarily have to be the same. Most times, the same evidence used in either a civil or criminal legal case will be used in the other.

The Burden of Proofs vary in degree. Therefore, proving criminal charges is harder than proving civil charges.

For example, in the infamous OJ Simpson case, OJ was acquitted of murder in his criminal trial. However, in the wrongful death suit filed by the victims’ families, the jury found OJ responsible for the murders and awarded monetary damages to the victims’ families.

Lawyer making case in court
Civil Cases vs. Criminal Cases

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