Liable In Civil Case Not Guilty In Criminal Case
It can be confusing when someone is found liable in a civil case but not guilty in a related criminal case. This seeming contradiction actually makes sense when you understand the key differences between civil and criminal law.
In the American legal system, a wrongdoing can lead to both a civil case and a criminal case. If someone breaks the law, they face a criminal case brought by the government. If they violated a duty owed to another person, they also face a civil case brought by the injured party.
For example, O.J. Simpson faced both criminal charges for murder and a civil wrongful death lawsuit related to the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
So what’s the difference between civil and criminal cases? There are several key distinctions:
- Criminal: The government, through a prosecutor, brings charges against the defendant.
- Civil: An individual or private party, called the plaintiff, sues the defendant.
- Criminal: To punish or rehabilitate the defendant for breaking the law.
- Civil: To compensate the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant.
- Criminal: Guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
- Civil: Liability is proven by “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence,” lower standards than in criminal law.
How Can The Outcomes Differ?
Due to the different standards of proof, a defendant can be acquitted of criminal charges but still be held liable in a civil case for the same actions.
In the O.J. Simpson example, the criminal jury did not find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the civil jury found him responsible for the deaths by a preponderance of evidence. The higher criminal standard was not met, but the lower civil standard was.
Let’s break down how this happens:
- In criminal cases, the state must prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Any reasonable doubt can lead to an acquittal.
- In civil cases, the plaintiff only needs to show it’s more likely than not that the defendant caused the harm.
- Criminal cases have the highest stakes – loss of liberty or even life. So the standard is extremely high.
- Civil cases are about monetary damages. The standard is lower because the stakes are lower.
- It’s possible for a jury to think the defendant “probably did it” or “likely caused the harm” but still have some reasonable doubt, leading to different verdicts.
So in cases like O.J. Simpson’s, the acquittal in criminal court does not contradict or invalidate the civil judgment. The verdicts reflect the different standards in each type of case.
Other Key Differences
There are other key differences that help explain how the outcomes can diverge:
- Criminal cases have strict rules about evidence and procedure to protect the defendant’s rights.
- Civil cases use more flexible evidence standards that make it easier for plaintiffs to prove their cases.
- Criminal defendants are guaranteed an attorney even if they can’t afford one.
- No such right exists in civil cases – it’s harder for defendants to get legal representation.
- Criminal cases must precisely define the charges and address complex legal issues like intent and state of mind.
- Civil cases have more flexibility in legal arguments and don’t need to meet the same precise standards.
Examples Where The Outcomes Diverged
There are several high-profile cases where a defendant was acquitted criminally but found liable civilly:
- O.J. Simpson – Acquitted of murder but held liable for wrongful death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
- Robert Blake – Acquitted of murdering his wife but found liable in the civil wrongful death lawsuit and ordered to pay $30 million.
- Casey Anthony – Acquitted of murdering her daughter Caylee but later found liable for Caylee’s death in a civil suit and ordered to pay nearly $700,000.
- George Zimmerman – Acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin but later found liable in a civil suit by Martin’s family.
The pattern in these cases is that the criminal standard was not met, but the civil standard was. The outcomes appear conflicting but result from the different legal frameworks.
The Role of Public Perception
The court of public opinion also plays a role. Criminal acquittals are often unpopular, with the public perceiving injustice when someone avoids criminal punishment.
But the justice system must ignore public pressure and uphold strict standards of reasonable doubt. Civil suits offer a way for families to feel some sense of justice when criminal convictions fail.
However, the civil outcomes do not imply the criminal verdicts were necessarily wrong. They reflect our two different legal systems, with different parties, purposes and standards.
What are the practical implications when civil and criminal outcomes diverge?
No Double Jeopardy
The Fifth Amendment prohibits double jeopardy – being tried twice for the same crime. So criminal defendants acquitted of charges cannot be retried criminally.
But civil suits for damages related to the same actions are still permitted. The different standards of proof allow separate findings.
A civil judgment can impose major financial penalties through damage awards even when no criminal punishment results.
Even without jail time, civil liability can cause significant personal and professional damage through monetary penalties and reputational harm.
Closure for Victims
Civil suits allow victims and families to feel a sense of justice through financial awards when criminal convictions fail.
Divergent verdicts may fuel public skepticism about acquittals and undermine confidence in the justice system.
The Ethical Debate
There are ethical concerns when civil suits are used to impose penalties after criminal acquittals. Is it fair to allow civil suits to punish defendants who were not convicted criminally?
Some argue civil suits undermine constitutional protections for criminal defendants and amount to an “end run” around the criminal justice system.
Others argue they enhance justice by providing recourse when the higher criminal standard cannot be met.
There are reasonable arguments on both sides. Our legal system continues to grapple with this complex issue.
While divergent civil and criminal verdicts may seem confusing or contradictory on the surface, they result from fundamental differences between the two legal frameworks. The same actions can have very different outcomes depending on the distinct purposes, parties, evidentiary standards and burdens of proof in our civil and criminal justice systems. Understanding these key distinctions helps explain how and why someone can be liable in a civil