Although we tend to think of criminal law and civil law as separate systems with their own separate set of rules and laws, there is an intersection between them that often occurs. Yes, there are differences legally, but many scenarios will involve both a criminal prosecution and a civil case for injuries or damages.
Civil and Criminal Cases can Differ
Perhaps the most famous example of this is the OJ Simpson case. Simpson’s acquittal from criminal charges made national news. Less publicized was the fact that he was found liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown and Ron Simpson in a civil court and ordered to pay millions of dollars to the families.
As you can gather from that case, the fact that one is absolved from criminal penalties does not mean that the person cannot be sued and ultimately found liable for damages in a civil court for the exact same events.
In fact, because the standard for civil liability is simply preponderance of the evidence (or, as some like to put it, 51% of the evidence must weigh in the winning party’s favor) while criminal law is the much tougher beyond a reasonable doubt, it is not unusual for the state to fail to meet its legal burden while a private attorney is able to win a jury verdict for injury damages.
Stand Your Ground Laws
A recent case dealt with just this issue when it comes to Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. Made popular in the media by the highly publicized Trayvon Martin killing, these laws allow someone to use lethal force to protect themselves, even if they have the ability to retreat from the danger safely. In other words, someone who believes his life is legitimately in danger does not have to run away.
In criminal court, if a defendant can prove that he or she meets the Stand Your Ground standard, there is complete immunity from criminal prosecution. There is also complete immunity from civil liability. The Stand Your Ground issue is usually held during a pretrial hearing, before the actual trial.
Bar Fight Leads to Legal Issues
The case arose from a simple bar fight. A man struck another man with a glass, leading to permanent vision damage in the alleged attacker’s eye. In criminal court, the defendant alleged that he only used the glass in self-defense, and that Stand Your Ground laws immunized him from conviction. He proved this defense at a pretrial hearing, and charges were dropped or dismissed.
A civil suit for injuries was then filed. The man alleged that because he had already shown that he met the standard for Stand Your Ground in criminal court, that he automatically could not be sued in civil court. The issue therefore became whether a finding in criminal court supporting the defense automatically applied to a civil case, or whether there needed to be another, separate hearing on this issue in the civil trial.
An appellate court held that a second hearing was not necessary and that the criminal court’s ruling bound the civil court. The Florida Supreme Court was asked to decide the issue.
Ruling Cannot Bind Different Parties
The problem lies in an obscure doctrine called collateral estoppel. This means that one court’s ruling can be binding on another court. However, that is only where the parties are the same. In criminal court, the parties are the State and the defendant. In a civil personal injury trial, the parties are the plaintiff and the defendant.
Further, the Stand Your Ground law said nothing about modifying collateral estoppel. In other words, no where did the legislature write any intention for parties in a civil case to be bound by the ruling on the parties in the criminal case.
The Court also looked to modifications to the Stand Your Ground rule in 2017. That law change contained changes in the standards and burdens of proof for Stand Your Ground in both criminal and civil cases. The Supreme Court surmised that if the legislature had intended for one hearing to bind both courts, it would not have gone through the trouble of writing laws that governed both criminal and civil proceedings.
This is in line with the standards of proof in both cases. If the State cannot prove that there are grounds to prosecute beyond a reasonable doubt, that does not mean a defendant can show that he or she is entitled to the defense based on the civil preponderance of the evidence standard.
Thus, the Court rules that a separate hearing would have to be held in civil court, and that the defendant could not simply rely on the criminal court’s ruling as automatically protecting him or her from a lawsuit.
Both Systems Affect Each Other
The case is another reminder that criminal cases can have civil components. In many instances, crime victims are also injury victims, with potential civil claims either against attackers, or facilities that allow attacks to happen on their property.
In many cases, evidence in criminal trials, while not automatically admissible in civil cases, can impact a civil case that occurs after the criminal one. Depositions or expert analysis in one case can affect the other. Even innocent admissions in one case can be admitted in the other.
A party that says that a parking lot was dark, or that an attacker said they were “sorry,” or someone who admits they used too much force, can have that statement used against them in a civil proceeding even if the person was not convicted.
This is even true where a party has criminal charges completely dropped or dismissed. The State may have many reasons why they opt not to press charges. They may have difficulty securing a witness. Perhaps budgetary and time constraints make the prosecutor feel the case is not worth pursuing.
These factors may not have anything to do with a civil trial, and nobody should assume that because charges were dropped or dismissed, that a victim cannot make a viable case for personal injuries in civil court.
If you are injured, make sure you have representation through all phases of the legal process. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation if you are injured as a result of any crime or criminal activity.