It happens often: you may have a personal injury case from a car crash—for which the driver is also facing separate criminal charges. Some of the most common criminal charges we see after crashes are driving under the influence, reckless driving, negligent driving, and criminal endangerment.
While the criminal conduct can be important evidence in your injury case, the cases are actually different and distinct.
Differences between civil and criminal cases
A personal injury case is a civil case, which means it’s brought by the individual person who was harmed.
A criminal case is brought by the state or federal government, on behalf of the people of the state.
The important thing to understand is that a person can face both civil and criminal cases at the same time, based on the same event and set of facts. While there may be some overlap, usually these cases can run on parallel tracks without affecting each other.
There are many reasons our justice system keeps criminal and civil cases separate and distinct. The main differences are the rules of evidence, the burden of proof, and the possible results or remedies.
The OJ Example
A famous example of the differences between a civil and criminal cases is OJ Simpson being accused of killing Nicole Brown Smith and Ronald Goldman.
In the criminal case, the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that OJ had committed the murders. The jury for the murder trial decided the state had not proven the case, and OJ was found not guilty.
In the civil case—a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the victims’ families—the lawyers had to prove OJ was responsible for the deaths by a preponderance of evidence. The jury for the wrongful death trial decided the lawyers had proved the case and found OJ liable, awarding $33.5 million in damages.
The criminal case and the civil case used most of the same evidence. It didn’t meet the higher burden of proof for a criminal conviction, but was sufficient evidence to prove the civil case. The other possible result in OJ’s criminal case was a guilty verdict and prison sentence. The other possible results in the civil case were OJ being found not liable; or, OJ being found liable but awarding no damages to the victims’ families.
Here’s how this might work play out in one of our firm’s cases.
A crash that results in injury case, and criminal charges
A speeding driver runs a red light, and slams into your car in the intersection. An ambulance takes you to the hospital, but later you learn that the other driver was 30 mph over the speed limit, and apparently intoxicated at the time of the crash.
In a civil personal injury case: You get to decide whether or not to file an injury case.
This decision might depend on the severity of the crash, the extent of your injuries and damages, and the car insurance policies available to cover the bills. If the matter can be settled out of court, then it may not be necessary to file a civil lawsuit.
If you have to file a lawsuit, then you would be the plaintiff. The driver who caused the crash would be the defendant. In court, you would have to show that the defendant had a duty to drive safely, failed in that duty, and their negligence caused the crash that resulted in injury or death.
In a criminal case: The prosecutor decides whether or not to file criminal charges against the driver.
For many of the traffic offenses that result in a car crash, the driver will get a citation and pay a fine. But some are misdemeanor crimes, which can result in a fine or in jail time, depending on where the collision occurred.
A driver can face felony charges after a car crash, in certain circumstances. According to a Seattle attorney who handles DUI cases:
Most driving under the influence charges in the State of Washington are misdemeanor charges that do not involve accidents or injuries …
Driving under the influence may be prosecuted as a felony in Washington if you have too many prior DUI convictions or if you cause a traffic accident that results in someone else’s serious injury or death.
You do not have any control over whether or not the state decides to charge the driver with a DUI or reckless driving, although the prosecutor may contact you to discuss it.
You do have control over whether or not you file a civil lawsuit against the driver for the damages and injuries he caused.
A real-life example:
On a spring night in Bellingham, Washington, a 37-year-old man was walking with a group of friends. He was trailing a few paces behind when a heavy truck slammed into him, causing fatal injuries. The extremely intoxicated truck driver also struck several other pedestrians, and crashed into another vehicle.
On the civil law side, the man’s family (our client) filed a wrongful death case, and several of the other victims filed personal injury cases. The insurance companies for the drunk driver, and the bar that excessively over-served him, settled the cases out of court.
On the criminal law side, the truck driver pleaded guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. The judge sentenced him to 16 years in prison. While some of the crash victims and their families voluntarily testified at the sentencing, this was separate from their civil lawsuits.
This is only a short explanation of the differences between civil and criminal cases resulting from the same incident. If you have questions about your own injury case, contact us for a free consultation.