How Is a Civil Trial Different From A Criminal Trial?
At the time this blog was written, the entire country is on verdict watch, awaiting the decision of the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial. There have been many trials over the course of the years that have attracted the attention of the media and the public for various reasons – you may have watched the OJ Simpson trial, the Casey Anthony trial, the George Zimmerman trial, the the Jeffrey Dahmer trial, the Timothy McVeigh trial, and others on television.
When people hear the word “trial”, criminal trials are typically what they think of, and their frame of reference is usually either highly publicized cases like the ones mentioned above or dramatic trials that they have seen portrayed in their favorite crime shows. While the majority of citizens will never find themselves involved in a criminal trial, they are much more likely to find themselves in a civil one. Even though most civil cases are settled without the need for a trial, there are still thousands of civil trials that occur each year in the United States.
In the event that you are hurt by someone else, it is important for you to know the difference between a civil trial and a criminal trial in order for you to have the right expectations and make the right decisions about how your case should proceed. All civil trials carry a measure of risk that settling does not, but in some situations, going to trial may result in the best outcome for you. Whether or not to go to trial is a decision that should always be made with the help and advice of an experienced personal injury attorney.
So what is the difference between a civil trial and a criminal trial?
Criminal trials are prosecuted by the state, while civil trials involve an individual plaintiff & a defendant.
Even though criminal offenses are usually against one person (e.g., a murder, a rape, a theft), they are seen through the eyes of the law as an offense against society or the government. That’s why crimes are always prosecuted by the state (or more specifically, a government attorney representing the state). For example, if someone kidnapped a child, the government, not the child’s parents, would file charges against the kidnapper.
Civil trials, on the other hand, are brought by regular individuals against other individuals who have wronged them; the individual’s lawyers would file the case against the defendant.
Criminal trials almost always involve a jury, but civil trials may be decided by only a judge.
According to the Constitution and the Sixth Amendment, people accused of crimes have a right to trial by jury (specifically, a “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury”). While the Supreme Court has declared that the jury-trial right only applies when serious offenses with a potential sentence of more than six months’ imprisonment are involved, the majority of criminal trials do take place with a jury present.
However, people filing lawsuits/defending themselves against lawsuits do not have the same legal right to a trial by jury, so civil trials may be resolved by jury trial or by bench trial (by a judge’s verdict) depending on the situation. While more civil trials involving personal injury claims and employment discrimination claims were heard before a jury rather than a judge (around 90%), judges decide a greater percentage of business-related civil trials (60-80%).
Criminal trials result in convictions or acquittals; civil trials result in damages, or don’t.
Another difference between civil and criminal trials is the outcome, or the punishment. Depending on the crime committed, a criminal trial could result in jail time, fines, and even the death penalty; these consequences are much more serious than those that can result from civil trials. A civil trial usually results in either monetary damages being paid to the plaintiff by the defendant or the defendant’s insurance company. Civil trials can also result in injunctions (orders to not do something).
The standard of proof in criminal trials is higher than in civil trials.
Because the consequences of a conviction in a criminal trial are so much weightier, the standard of proof for conviction is harder to meet. You probably know the term “beyond a reasonable doubt” indicates that the jury must be nearly certain of a defendant’s guilt based ont the evidence presented in order to convict. In civil cases, the standard of proof is the “preponderance of the evidence”, which basically means that they only have to be sure that it is more likely than not (51% certainty) that the defendant is guilty in order to make a decision.
Defendants in criminal trials have the right to an attorney; defendants in civil trials don’t.
You’ve probably heard in TV shows where the police arrest someone and say “You have the right to an attorney; if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you”. This is true – every defendant charged with a crime has the legal right to have a lawyer represent them, regardless of whether they can afford a private attorney or whether they cannot (in which case, they will be matched with a public defender).
Defendants in a civil case do not have the right to an attorney under law. If they are charged with a civil lawsuit, they will either have to hire one or represent themselves if they cannot afford it.
The same event can result in both trials occurring.
What many people don’t know is that one incident can lead to a criminal charge and a civil suit, and two trials may be held with the same defendant. For example, say a drunk driver hit another vehicle and tragically, two passengers died in the accident. The drunk driver would be charged with a crime and a criminal trial would take place, but the family of the victims could also seek monetary restitution from the drunk driver or the drunk driver’s insurance company for the cost of medical care, funeral expenses, pain and suffering, etc.
Have more questions about the difference between a civil trial and a criminal trial? Are you considering bringing a civil lawsuit against someone else for your injuries? You need an aggressive attorney on your side who has extensive trial experience. Call The Florida Law Group today to understand your legal options and pursue justice! We offer free consultations, and you never pay us until we win your case.