Every one of us has shaken our heads in disgust as we read article after article, month after month, how a hit and run driver who is apprehended and brought to court on criminal charges gets a slap on the wrist or is allowed to plead to lesser charges.
To be convicted in criminal court requires – and rightly so, in my opinion – a rigorous standard of proof. Plea deals are given for a variety of reasons. In a vehicular man slaughter case a plea is often struck because the person is unlikely to go out and do it again. And, the courts are underfunded and overworked so cases that can be expedited are.
A good example of this is demonstrated by a Streetsblog LA report from 2014. Wendy Villegas was a drunk driver who struck three bicyclists on the bridge on Cesar Chavez Boulevard on Sept. 14. One of the cyclists, Andy Garcia, died. Villegas never even stopped. It is only because a witness followed Villegas and was able to get her license plate number that she was apprehended. When the police booked her at 7:15 a.m., it is reported that she was still intoxicated. Instead of going to trial, Villegas took a 3-year and 8-months plea deal.
The post talks about the effect of the plea deal on Garcia’s family and friends. How they weren’t consulted about the deal and that their only permitted involvement was that they were allowed to read statements at the sentencing hearing about how Villegas’ actions affected their lives.
I bring this up because it is important for you to understand the differences between a criminal case and a civil case. There is a growing outcry that drivers who commit hit-and-runs should get stiffer penalties. I agree wholeheartedly. However, when you are calling for stiffer penalties, do you mean stiffer criminal or stiffer civil penalties?
Civil Lawsuits vs. Criminal Lawsuits
A criminal lawsuit is filed by the government (district attorney), not by the person or persons who have suffered at the hands of the accused. The district attorney is acting for the state (read as “society”) and ensuring the stability of society by punishing wrongdoers and deterring them and others from offending.
The hard truth is that you, as the victim or wronged party, are witnesses, at best, in the trial. The criminal case is about the wrongdoer being accused by the state of a criminal offense against society. Punishment for crimes against the state can be incarceration, fines, community service, or, in extreme cases, the death penalty.
In a civil suit, the lawsuit is brought by the wronged party (or parties). They are appealing to the court for relief. They are telling the court, “We have been injured because of the negligence or carelessness of the accused.”
The civil court’s response is to give the victim (the plaintiff), the chance to show how the accused (the defendant), harmed them. If the victim can prove they were harmed, then the court’s duty is “to make them whole.” This is usually accomplished by awarding the victim compensation for their injuries.
Before I discuss the issue of compensation making anyone “whole,” I want to talk about one more significant difference between criminal and civil lawsuits.
Civil vs. Criminal Standards of Proof
Everyone is familiar with the “O.J. trial.” O.J. Simpson was found not guilty by a jury for the murder of his wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in a criminal trial. Yet in the civil jury trial, O.J. was found guilty and was ordered to pay the Brown and Goldman families approximately $40 million.
How did that happen? There are probably numerous reasons, but what you need to know is the differences in the “standard of proof” in criminal versus civil trials.
In a criminal trial the “standard of proof” is that the district attorney must convince the judge or every member of the jury that the accused is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In a civil trial, the “standard of proof” is that the victim must demonstrate that there is a “preponderance of evidence” that the accused is guilty. It only takes a judge or a majority of jurors to find the accused liable in a civil trial.
In the O.J. example, it is obvious that the jurors in the criminal trial had doubts about O.J.’s guilt. In the civil trial, the lawyers for the families of the victims had to convince the jury that the evidence of guilt was “beyond the balance of probabilities.”
The Best We Can Do
Returning to the issue of compensation of the law making anyone “whole,” everyone knows that money cannot bring back a loved one or heal the catastrophic injuries the victim and their family suffered, or give anyone back the time they have lost due to the wrongdoer’s actions.
Every client I have ever had for whom I obtained a multi-million verdict or settlement has told me that they would give back every penny to have their loved one back or the injury they suffered to never have happened.
In legal terms, “made whole” means through compensation (which is the only currency that is available to the court), to bring the injured party to the place they would have been if they had not been injured by the wrongdoer. What “making whole” means in a legal sense varies by state laws.
In the Streetsblog post referred to earlier, the families are quoted as saying they are not interested in bringing a civil case. They have no interest in money. I understand, and they should do what is best for them. But civil justice could give the family the vindication of hearing those who injured them or their loved one being named “guilty” for all to hear. It also gives them the ability to heal financially from the hardships these circumstances have brought them. This isn’t “jackpot justice” as the public relations machines of Big Business and Big Insurance would like you to think. Not one of my clients ever asked to be in the position they were put in.
What Civil Justice Means
The compensation allows people who have been injured at no fault of their own – or families who have lost a loved one due to the negligence or carelessness of another – to rebuild their lives. In some cases it has meant being able to adapt a home and car for a wheelchair or for retraining for another career or for paying for quality childcare. It invariably means being able to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars for current and future medical care. In some cases the compensation is put in trust for a child’s future use, for college or other advanced education.
Just as importantly, when the wrongdoer is a government entity or a corporation, it sends the only punishment either of those understand: a hit to their bottom line.
There is no doubt in my mind that we need stronger criminal penalties against hit-and-run drivers. I also believe that we need to bring these people to justice in a civil court. It is only when their insurance companies start seeing what these people cost THEM (yes, I know that’s horrible, but that’s how companies work), will the insurance companies start applying their own form of punishments.
I know, after 30 years of representing some of the most wonderful people who never deserved the injuries and losses they suffered, that the compensation mattered to the victim and it punished the wrongdoer. That’s really all the courts can offer us. If you are ever in the position that you are considering a civil lawsuit, contact me and we’ll talk about your legal options. It is free, always.