Liable v. Guilty
Most people are aware that in a criminal case, the judgment is either guilty or not guilty. In a civil case, however, the defendant is considered either liable or not liable. In a criminal case the punishment is referred to as “sentencing”, in which fines, probation, and jail time may be imposed on the defendant. However, in a civil case, punishment is in the form of financial damages for which the defendant is liable to the plaintiff for the harm he or she caused the plaintiff.
The standards of proof are very different in criminal and civil proceedings. In a criminal case a jury (or in a bench trial a judge) must conclude that the victim is guilty of the charge “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, in a civil case a jury (or judge) must conclude that the “preponderance of the evidence” demonstrates that the defendant is liable for the allegation. In some circumstances in a civil trial the intermediate standard of proof of “clear and convincing evidence” is applied. This is typically applied in case where there are very steep consequences, such as in the determination of parental rights or involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospitalization. The differences between theses standards bears a strong relationship to the severity of the punishments available. Since criminal law has the possibility of incarceration, the stakes are much higher for the defendant and, as such, the public policy supports the idea that the proof should be much higher.
In a criminal case, the state bears the burden of proof in showing that the defendant is guilty. In a civil case the burden is placed upon the plaintiff. However, in some cases the burden can shift. For example, in many jurisdictions an affirmative defense such as self defense must be demonstrated by the defendant. One example in a civil case would be in which the court finds that the circumstances meet the qualifications for res ipsa loquitur (negligence in itself), and thus an inference of negligence can be made. In that situation the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that the negligence/breach did not occur.
In a criminal case the jury is required to come up with a unanimous verdict. If they do not, it is considered to be a “hung” jury and the state has the option of retrying the defendant. On the other hand, in civil cases, the defendant can still be found liable with a split jury decision.
Juries are told to resolve issues of fact and apply the law to those facts. Unlike in a civil case, in a criminal case a jury’s acquittal is not reviewable on appeal or otherwise. Thus, in a criminal context the jurors have the power to “nullify”, meaning they can acquit a criminal defendant despite clear evidence of his guilt. In a criminal case, juries may simply not believe the evidence or feel that the law or its application in that particular case is unfair, and despite their instructions to the contrary, may choose to ignore the law in their decision. Because of this possibility, unlike in a civil case a judge cannot issue directed verdict to a jury on an element because the jury retains the power to disregard the law. State ex rel. Family Support Div. – Child Support Enforcement v. Lane, 2010 WL 2265147 (Mo.App.,2010.). However, if the jury verdict is so absurd and significantly against the weight of evidence, sometimes the criminal judge, in very rare circumstances, will overturn the ruling when the jury enters a verdict of a guilty verdict by granting of a defendants’ motion of a judgment n.o.v or notwithstanding the verdict, or motion for a new trial. However, the prosecution cannot make this motion in the case of an acquittal.
The judge retains greater control over juries in a civil trial than a criminal trial. Sometimes in civil cases judges require the juries to fill out what are called special verdict forms which explain their decision for the parties. Additionally the judge is more likely to make a decision for the jury either before or after the jury verdict with motion for judgment as a matter of law either before (directed verdict) or after (n.o.v or notwithstanding the verdict), or even issue a new trail if the judge feels that the verdict was almost outside what was reasonable or at odds with the law. The standard for a judgement as a matter of law either before or after the jury issues its verdict is whether in light of the evidence, a reasonable juror would not come to a different conclusion. In order to have a ruling for a judgment as a matter of law after the jury verdict, the motion must first be made prior to the verdict, and then if the judge chooses not to grant it, it is “suspended” and can be resubmitted after the jury comes back with their decision. Usually the party will make a motion for a new trial along with this resubmitting of the motion, hoping that if the judge doesn’t want to completely overturn the jury verdict and possibly abuse his discretion, he or she will at least allow the case to be retried.
The focus of a jury in their deliberations in a criminal case and a civil case is often quite different. In a criminal case, the jury is looking specifically at the actions of the defendant, and whether those actions constituted a criminal act. There are some situations in a criminal trial where the focus turns to the victim, such as in arguments of self defense, but the majority of the trial focuses on specifically the actions of the defendant.
In a civil trial however, a significant portion of the trial will be regarding the damages to be awarded. Damages differ from a punishment since they are to compensate the victim or plaintiff for the harm caused by the defendant, and thus aren’t determined by the actions of the defendant, but the consequences of those actions to the victim or plaintiff. Therefore the evidence presented is focused on the plaintiff or the victim and consequences to him or her as a result of the defendants’ behavior.