O.J. Simpson was famously acquitted in the 1994 murder of his ex-wife and her friend. But you might recall that he was later found liable for wrongful death and battery and ordered to pay millions of dollars to the victims’ families.
How is it that Simpson could have been found not guilty of, but liable for, the same thing?
The answer lies in the fundamental distinction in our legal system civil and criminal cases.
Criminal cases deal with crimes against society — that is, against the people as a whole. It is the government, not the victim, who brings action against the charged individual. (You may have noticed that criminal case names take the form of “The People v. [the defendant].” Although the government may ask the victim if he or she wants to “press charges,” the prosecutor has the discretion to pursue the case even without the cooperation of the victim.
Penalties in criminal cases can include jail time, so the stakes are high. Accordingly, there is a high burden of proof on the prosecution, which must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Until that happens, the defendant is presumed innocent. Moreover, the defendant has the right to an attorney, and if he or she cannot afford one, the government must provide one.
In contrast with criminal cases, in civil cases one party sues another for an injury or harm that they feel the other party has committed against them. At issue is not whether the defendant is “guilty” or “innocent,” but whether or not he or she is liable, and if so, to what degree. A liable party can be asked to pay money to the injured party, to do something (like follow through on a contract) or to not do something (like use the plaintiff’s trademark).
A person can’t be incarcerated because they’ve been found liable in a civil case. This is true even when the plaintiff in a civil case is the government. Because there is no threat to the defendant’s physical freedom in a civil case (i.e., no threat of incarceration), the standard of proof is lower. Often the standard is “the preponderance of the evidence,” which means it’s more likely than not that something happened in a particular way. This explains how O.J. Simpson could be acquitted of the criminal charge of murder but held liable for the civil charge of wrongful death — in the civil case the plaintiff only had to show it was more likely than not that Simpson carried out the killing.
A defendant in a civil case does not have a right to an attorney and must pay for his or her own attorney.
It is important to understand that there are potentially two ways a person can get in trouble for a misdeed: criminal and civil. Although there are troubling cases in modern society of the lines between civil and criminal penalties getting blurred, the distinction is fundamental to the justice system and helps ensure that defendants facing the possibility of incarceration get certain rights.