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Similarities and differences between civil and criminal law

Civil (personal injury) vs. criminal cases in california


Understand the difference between California civil and criminal cases

There are 2 different types of legal cases in the United States: civil and criminal. But whether a person’s action results in a civil or criminal lawsuit in California depends on the circumstances surrounding their case.

In criminal cases, charges are brought by the government (either federal, state or local) and generally involve issues that impact society. On the other hand, civil cases or personal injury lawsuits are initiated by individuals or companies seeking financial compensation following an accident or injury.

This article will explain the major differences between these 2 types of cases and how they can sometimes overlap.

Main differences between civil and criminal law

Criminal law involves prosecuting wrongdoings that have societal implications, such as murder, rape, drug dealing, drunk driving and fraud. These behaviors tend to affect society as a whole if they go unpunished. Criminal cases are filed by a prosecutor who is responsible for proving the defendant committed a specific crime.

Civil law typically involves incidents such as car accidents, slip-and-fall injuries or medical malpractice in which the injured party was harmed because of the defendant’s negligent or reckless behavior, but the defendant didn’t necessarily commit a crime. Civil cases are filed by a plaintiff who will have to prove the defendant is liable for the damages in their case.

Burden of proof in California civil and criminal cases

During a criminal case, the prosecution has to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant in question committed the crime. These cases typically involve court proceedings in which an impartial jury decides whether the prosecution was able to prove the defendant’s guilt in the case.

Civil cases, however, have lower standards of proof than criminal cases and must be proven by “a preponderance of the evidence.” This means that the plaintiff only needs to prove that there was more than a 50 percent chance the defendant was at fault in order to win their case. Most civil cases are decided by a judge rather than a jury.

The main reason this discrepancy exists in the burden of proof in criminal and civil cases is because of the types of punishments involved.

Punishments in California civil and criminal cases

Because criminal cases involve serious crimes that are viewed as an affront to society, they can result in harsh punishments, including life in prison and, in some cases, the death penalty if the defendant is convicted of the crimes against them.

By contrast, civil cases don’t involve jail time. Civil cases typically involve a monetary punishment in which the defendant is ordered to compensate the plaintiff for damages. Such compensation may include economic and non-economic damages, including:

    • Medical expenses


    • Lost income


    • Pain and suffering


    • Emotional distress


    • Loss of consortium


  • Punitive damages

An experienced personal injury attorney should be able to give you some idea about how much your personal injury case might be worth based on similar California cases.

Your rights in California civil and criminal cases

If you're a defendant in a criminal case, you're entitled to have an attorney represent you in court even if you're unable to pay for one. The state will appoint an attorney to your case if you're unable to afford one on your own.

Defendants in a criminal case also have rights that are protected under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, including a right to privacy that protects them against an illegal search and seizure. Under the 5th Amendment, defendants also have the right to protect themselves from self-incrimination, meaning they aren’t obligated to testify or answer questions that could be harmful to their case.

These protections usually aren't available to defendants in a civil trial because of the lower burden of proof and punishments involved.

During a civil case, you don't have the right to have an attorney represent you. If you're unable to afford an attorney, you typically have to represent yourself, although some nonprofit organizations exist that may be able to offer limited legal advice in some instances.

Can you face both a civil and criminal lawsuit for the same offense in California?

As we’ve discussed, criminal and civil cases are carried out in different manners and have different burdens of proof and punishments. However, there are situations where 1 defendant can face both a criminal and civil lawsuit for the same offense.

An example would be if someone commits a murder. A criminal trial would be held because of the seriousness of the crime and because the offense violates a law that is intended to keep society safe. However, family members of the victim could also bring a civil case against the defendant, known as a wrongful death claim, regardless of whether or not the defendant is convicted of the crime in criminal court.

When there isn't enough evidence to convict a defendant in a criminal case because of the higher burden of proof, a civil case is often filed by the victim’s family in order to obtain some level of justice for their deceased loved one and make the defendant pay (at least financially) for their crime.

When to contact a California personal injury attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured because of another person’s negligence, you have the right to be compensated for your damages. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you understand your rights, ensure you meet all required filing deadlines, determine liability, negotiate with insurance companies and argue your case in court, if necessary.

You have enough to worry about while trying to get your life back together and heal from an injury after an accident. Let your attorney handle the legal process  so you can focus on getting better.

If you’ve been injured because of someone else’s negligence in California or Texas, the experienced personal injury attorneys at MVP Accident Attorneys are here to help. Our firm has recovered millions of dollars for our clients across California and Texas, and we'd love to help you too.

Contact us today for your free, no-obligation consultation. There’s never a fee unless we win your case.


brett sachs2
Brett Sachs

Brett S. Sachs graduated from Michigan State University College of Law with Cum Laude Honors. While attending Michigan State, Brett was awarded for his service in the Michigan State University College of Law Civil Rights Clinic, where he represented prisoners of the Michigan Department of Corrections from injustices brought upon them. Learn more.

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