Lesson 18: The Different Standards of Proof in Civil and Criminal Court

From The Sue the Bastards section of How You Can Avoid Legal Land Mines by Joseph S. Lyles (2003).

One good effect of the O.J. Simpson trials is that they clearly demonstrated the difference between a criminal prosecution case and a civil damages case. The first O.J. trial was a criminal prosecution, and the second trial was a civil damages case. And while the verdicts may have seemed inconsistent, they actually were not so in a technical legal sense.

The key question the jury was answering in the criminal case was whether the government had proven that O.J. was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in the civil case the key question the jury was answering was whether the plaintiffs (the Brown family members) had proven by the greater weight of the evidence that O.J. wrongfully caused his wife’s death.

The end results of criminal and civil trials differ. If O.J. had lost the criminal case, he would have been punished. His punishment could have included imprisonment and a monetary fine, and the sentence could have been suspended for a period of probation. A condition of probation can be monetary restitution. In some states he could have also been subject to capital punishment. Because O.J. was found liable (not the same as guilty) to the plaintiffs in the civil case, he was obliged only to pay monetary damages.

The main point the different verdicts highlight is that criminal cases and civil cases have different burdens of proof. In both cases, the prosecution or plaintiff has the burden of proof. But the burden of proof is heavier in a criminal case because someone’s liberty is at stake. In short, in a civil case, the side that is simply more believable wins, but in a criminal case, the jury must believe in the accused guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Another big difference between criminal and civil cases is the way the decision of the court or jury is ultimately enforced. In a criminal case, the police often apprehend a convicted defendant in the courtroom and haul him off to jail. In a civil action, the victorious party is simply handed a piece of paper called a judgment. The police do not arrest the defendants if they refuse to pay the plaintiff the amount of the judgment.

I was involved with a case that illustrates how the different standards of proof can have a big impact on how a case is handled. My client, John, owned a raft rental company. One night while John was at his residence beside his business, a trespasser came onto his property and cut up two of his rafts with a knife. The rafts were fully inflated on the lawn in front of the store, awaiting customers who had reserved them for the following morning.

John barely glimpsed the perpetrator as he drove off in a brand new pickup, but he did see the yellow paper tag on the bak of the truck. The tag proclaimed the name of the dealership that had recently sold the truck.

John called the sheriff who sent a deputy to investigate. They gathered evidence pointing in the direction of a man that John knew was not his friend. However, the local prosecutor refused to take the case because he didn’t feel he could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, I successfully pursued a civil suit for John, and he won a verdict for monetary damages. Because the perpetrator owned real estate, we were able to actually collect the judgment, but the perpetrator never received any criminal punishment for his wrongdoing.

The Lesson: It is important to understand whether a particular case is classified as criminal or civil. This fundamental distinction controls how the case will be tried and concluded. The winners and losers in these fundamentally different types of cases have different burdens of proof and different obligations. And as O.J. Simpson’s cases show, that distinction can be vitally important to the outcome of the case.