There are some circumstances when a case could be both civil and criminal.
Possibly the most well-known example of a case that was tried both in criminal court and in a civil lawsuit is O.J. Simpson.
After a lengthy and highly-viewed criminal trial, he was acquitted (found not guilty). However, the families of Brown Simpson and Goldman filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against him. In that proceeding, the court awarded the families a $33.5 million judgment after finding that Simpson was liable for their deaths.
How is it possible that one court found him not guilty and the other found him liable?
This happens because the burden of proof is different in a criminal proceeding than a civil lawsuit. In a criminal trial, the burden (or responsibility) of proving the defendant’s guilt is always on the prosecution. The defendant is presumed innocent unless the prosecution proves him or her guilty.
In a civil trial, the burden begins with the plaintiff but sometimes shifts to the defendant. In other words, the plaintiff makes a claim and sets forth an initial set of complaints. The defendant responds by denying all or some allegations. The burden then shifts to the defendant to prove their defense or counterclaim.
Criminal trial evidence standard
A criminal case hinges on whether the evidence proves that the defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
The prosecution must show, with credible evidence, that the only logical explanation for how the crime occurred is that the defendant caused it to happen. The judge or jury must believe to a “moral certainty” that the defendant committed the crime.
Credible evidence is a standard required in criminal trials, which means the jury must conclude that the evidence presented is natural, reasonable, and probable.
Civil trial evidence standard
Just like in a criminal trial, a judge or jury needs to be sure the defendant is liable in a civil lawsuit. But the standard is slightly different. In a civil proceeding, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is liable by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the event was more likely than not to have occurred, or that 51% of the evidence favors the plaintiff’s outcome.
In Simpson’s criminal trial, the jury found that the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the murders. However, the jury in the subsequent civil trial determined that a preponderance of the evidence indicated that he was liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Outcome of civil vs. criminal cases
When you bring a personal injury civil lawsuit, there’s only one remedy: money.
No matter what you’re suing for, whether it’s a contract dispute where you lost money or a personal physical injury, the only thing the court will award in a civil suit is financial damages.
Damages can be economic, non-economic, or punitive. The court will determine whether the defendant was liable, or at fault, for the harm. If so, the defendant will be ordered to pay the plaintiff a sum of money.
In some states, plaintiffs and defendants can be found to both have a percentage of liability. Sometimes that means the plaintiff receives a reduced damage award, based on the amount of liability.
The legal intent behind the civil court system is to make a plaintiff whole. In other words, the process is designed to restore you to the position you were in before the harm occurred. The court can’t take away your personal physical injury or bring back a lost loved one, but it can help you to recoup money spent on medical treatment, lost wages, and other financial losses.
In a criminal case, the outcome will be a punishment if the defendant is found guilty. Unlike civil cases, a defendant can’t be partially responsible, and there’s no sharing of liability. There’s a possibility that a defendant can be found guilty on some charges but not others, even when related to the same action.
If the victim participated in the crime in any way, the charges might be reduced or the sentence could be lighter. But the victim wouldn’t benefit financially or otherwise based on a defendant’s guilt or innocence. If the prosecutor believes that the victim also committed a crime, they’d be charged for their actions in a separate proceeding.
There’s a range of possibilities for how a criminal defendant can be sentenced. It’s often at the judge’s discretion and based on the severity of the crime, but there are sentencing guidelines and minimums or maximums for certain charges. The sentencing requirements will vary based on the state where the crime is tried. Generally, a sentence entails either a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment. There can be other penalties, too, like house arrest, or restriction or loss of a driver’s license.
What about double jeopardy?
Double jeopardy is a constitutional right set forth by the 5th Amendment that prohibits the government from prosecuting someone twice for the same crime.
That means if someone has been charged with a crime, the government can’t:
- Prosecute a second time after the person is acquitted (found not guilty)
- Prosecute for the same offense after the person is convicted (found guilty)
- Punish more than once for the same offense
Double jeopardy only applies in criminal cases. That’s why you can file a civil lawsuit after someone has been convicted of a crime (or if the person was acquitted).
What if new evidence surfaced today that proves his guilt? Say, for example, video footage is uncovered that shows him killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
It’s too late. He’s already been acquitted in a criminal trial. No matter what the evidence is or how compelling it is, he can’t be criminally tried again for the same crime.
However, if O.J. was convicted (found guilty) and new evidence is discovered that would exonerate him (show that he wasn’t guilty), that evidence could be presented to the court in the form of an appeal. The 5th Amendment can only act in someone’s favor, not work against them.