Most car accidents are civil matters. They cause damage and injuries for which victims can seek compensation through insurance claims and civil lawsuits. Far fewer car accidents involve criminal prosecutions, and even when they do, most also involve a parallel civil matter in which a victim pursues damages from the at-fault party.
Here’s an explanation of the distinction between civil and criminal car accident cases and how an car accident attorney can handle the process of securing compensation for crash victims through civil legal proceedings.
Table of Contents
- Criminal versus Civil—What’s the Difference?
- Most Car Accidents Are Civil Matters
- Your Right to Pursue a Civil Matter After a Car Accident
- What a Lawyer Can Do for You in a Car Accident Matter?
- Contact a Skilled Car Accident Lawyer Today for a Free Consultation
Criminal versus Civil—What’s the Difference?
Most legal disputes in the United States fall into one of two broad categories: civil matters and criminal matters (a third category, administrative matters, accounts for most of the rest). There are stark differences between civil and criminal matters.
Criminal Matters Involve the Government Accusing Someone of a Crime
Criminal matters are legal proceedings in which the government has accused someone (a criminal defendant) of violating a criminal law. In most states, only the government can initiate a criminal matter, and the government bears the high burden of proving the charge against the criminal defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. If the government succeeds in proving its case at trial, or (as is far more common) the criminal defendant enters a guilty plea, a court sentences the criminal defendant to a punishment that can include prison, fines, and probation.
Civil Matters Involve Claiming that Someone’s Misconduct Caused Harm, Whether or Not It Was a Crime
Civil matters, in contrast, are legal proceedings in which one party (the plaintiff) alleges that another party (the defendant) harmed them by engaging in misconduct. Virtually anyone an individual, business, or public or private entity can initiate a civil matter. Lawsuits and legal disputes between private parties almost always constitute civil matters.
In a typical civil matter, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
- The defendant’s wrongful decisions, actions, or inaction violated that duty;
- The plaintiff suffered physical, emotional, or financial harm as a result; and
- The defendant should therefore pay monetary damages to the plaintiff or be subject to some other form of legal remedy.
A civil matter can involve allegations of misconduct for which the government could also pursue criminal charges, but that’s not required. Civil matters are completely separate and distinct from criminal matters. A plaintiff can generally initiate a civil action against a defendant regardless of whether the government has charged, or even could charge, the defendant with a crime arising out of the same facts or circumstances.
Most Car Accidents Are Civil Matters
Car accidents happen all the time. More than 6 million of them occur in the average year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Many of those crashes happen because people often, but not always, drivers make careless mistakes. They didn’t intend to crash or hurt anyone. Nor did their actions amount to a reckless disregard for the safety of others. They simply made the sort of human error that can happen to anyone, and it caused an accident.
In those most common car accident scenarios, individuals who suffered harm will generally have the right to pursue a civil claim for damages against the party who made the mistake that caused the crash or against their own or the at-fault party’s insurance company. They may, for example, submit a claim under their own insurance coverage, pursue a claim under the at-fault party’s liability insurance policy, or initiate a lawsuit against the at-fault party in court. Any of those actions would constitute a strictly civil matter.
Law enforcement generally has no basis to pursue criminal charges in these sorts of car accidents. Careless mistakes don’t usually amount to criminal misconduct. And even if they might, the authorities frequently have little interest in prosecuting. They’re content for justice to be served by the accident victim pursuing damages via a civil matter.
Some Car Accidents Are Civil and Criminal Matters Simultaneously
Some car accidents, however, occur because someone engaged in the sort of intentionally harmful or extremely reckless conduct generally associated with criminal behavior. When those accidents happen, the victim can have the right to pursue a civil claim for damages, and the government can simultaneously have justification for charging the at-fault party criminally.
Car accidents that can amount to civil and criminal matters simultaneously often include:
- Drunk or drugged driving accidents
- Accidents resulting from street racing or extreme speeding
- Road rage accidents
- Fatal accidents, especially those involving child deaths
As noted above, car accidents that lead to criminal charges can also be pursued as civil matters at the same time. That’s because the two types of matters serve entirely different purposes. Criminal matters seek justice for the community by punishing violations of criminal statutes. Civil matters seek compensation for the harm caused to specific plaintiffs by a defendant’s misconduct, whether or not it amounted to a crime.
That’s not to say, however, that simultaneous civil and criminal car accident matters don’t affect one another. They can, which is why car accident victims need a skilled lawyer in their corner to make sure their rights to claim damages in a civil matter stay protected, no matter what type of charge the authorities decide to pursue against the at-fault party.
Few Car Accidents Are Purely Criminal Matters
It’s relatively uncommon for a car accident to spawn a criminal matter only. It typically happens only when an accident causes no harm to anyone but the at-fault party, and that party has no claim for compensation against their own or anyone else’s insurance.
For example, a drunk driver crashing his car into a concrete highway barrier might lead to criminal charges but no civil matter since no one else got hurt, only the driver’s car sustained damage, and the driver’s insurance excluded coverage for damage caused by its policyholder’s criminal actions.
Your Right to Pursue a Civil Matter After a Car Accident
If you or someone close to you suffered physical, emotional, or financial injuries stemming from a car accident, you likely have the right to pursue a civil matter seeking compensation from the party at fault or under an insurance policy. Here’s an overview of who may have civil liability to you and the types of damages you may have the right to claim.
Who Has Liability to You?
If someone owes you money for causing the damages you suffered in a car accident, lawyers refer to them as having civil liability to you (or being civilly liable). Numerous parties may have civil liability to you after a car accident. It all depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the crash.
Car accident attorneys who represent crash victims like you work hard to identify as many parties as possible who may have civil liability in your case.
A lawyer may conclude, for example, that they can hold any of these parties civilly liable for your damages:
- A careless or reckless driver who caused the accident
- The employer of a careless or reckless driver who crashed a work vehicle
- A bar, restaurant, or social host that served alcohol to a visibly intoxicated or underage drunk driver
- An automotive manufacturer that sold defective parts that triggered the accident
- A government entity or contractor responsible for unreasonably dangerous road conditions
In addition to these or similar parties, an insurance company may also have an obligation to pay for your car accident losses. Lawyers for crash victims refer to that obligation as a contractual liability because it arises under the terms of an insurance policy, which is a type of contract. You might have the right to claim compensation under your own insurance policy (a so-called first-party insurance claim) or under an insurance policy issued to someone else to cover their civil liability to you (a third-party claim).
What Compensation Can You Claim in a Civil Matter?
As the victim of a car accident caused by someone else’s wrongful conduct, you can claim compensation for the full scope of harm you’ve suffered. It may surprise you to learn just how broad your rights to compensation are.
You generally have the right to demand payment for all of the following types of damages if you suffered them:
- The costs of your current and future medical treatments for car accident-related injuries
- The expense of repairing or replacing your damaged property
- Other out-of-pocket expenditures trigged by the accident or your injuries
- Earnings and job benefits you lost by missing work after the accident
- Future income you may not earn because of your injuries
- Your physical pain and discomfort
- Your emotional distress
- The inconvenience and daily disruption caused by your injury
- Your diminished enjoyment of life, activities, or relationships
- Living with scarring or disfigurement
In some cases, such as a car accident that’s simultaneously a civil and criminal matter, you may also have the right to request that a court award you additional punitive damages as a way of punishing the at-fault party’s misconduct. The most reliable way to learn about the damages you may claim in a civil car accident matter is to consult with an experienced attorney.
What a Lawyer Can Do for You in a Car Accident Matter?
Victims of car accidents deserve maximum compensation. But getting that money isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward. It takes the skill and experience of a seasoned car accident injury lawyer to ensure that you receive the payments due for the damages you suffered.
Lawyers handle every aspect of the process of claiming compensation in a civil matter against an at-fault party or insurance company.
The right lawyer for your car accident case has the resources and know-how, for example:
- Investigate the causes of your car accident to identify every party that might have civil liability to you.
- Analyze insurance policies to determine whether and for how much they cover your losses.
- Handle all interactions with insurance companies on your behalf, so you never have to deal with an aggressive adjuster’s calls.
- Answer your questions and help you make critical life decisions that might affect your rights.
- Serve as your personal representative in dealings with official investigators.
- Protect your rights to compensation in the civil matter in the event the car accident also triggers criminal charges against the at-fault party.
- Gather the evidence to prove a party’s civil liability and your damages.
- Prepare, file, and litigate insurance claims and lawsuits on your behalf.
- Negotiate potential settlements of your claim with defense lawyers and insurance companies.
- Advise you about whether to accept or reject a settlement offer.
- Take your case to trial to prove liability and damages to a judge and jury.
- Secure and disburse the money owed to you under a settlement or court judgment.
Car accident lawyers provide these and other services on a contingent fee basis in most cases. A fee is contingent when the lawyer only earns it by getting you results. When a lawyer represents you on contingency, you don’t have to pay upfront fees or hourly rates for the lawyer’s work. The lawyer gets to work immediately and only collects a payment out of money secured on your behalf.
Contact a Skilled Car Accident Lawyer Today for a Free Consultation
By pursuing a civil matter, you can seek compensation for the harm you suffered in a car accident. Depending on your circumstances, that might entail submitting a claim to an insurance company or filing a lawsuit in a local court. And to get the most money out of those proceedings as possible, you’ll need an attorney in your corner who knows the rope and has a strong track record of getting results for injured accident victims like you.
Don’t delay. You may have limited time to initiate a civil matter before your rights expire. Contact a personal injury lawyer in Philadelphia today for a free consultation about your rights.