Are Car Accidents Civil or Criminal Matters?By Gabriel Levin on November 7th, 2017
Before discussing whether car accidents are civil or criminal matters (or even both), it is important to understand a bit about the American legal system and the difference between types of litigation. Although judges hear both civil and criminal cases, unless the court is specialized, there are not different courthouses or judges for these matters. There are, however, different standards of evidence and remedies available depending on the types of litigation. Furthermore, not everyone can bring civil or criminal litigation, which is why it is important to understand your rights to compensation after a Philadelphia motor vehicle accident.
Main Differences Between Civil and Criminal Litigation
The main difference between civil and criminal litigation is what lawyers refer to as the “remedies” sought. Civil litigation is generally defined as litigation between two or more parties who seek money or performance—for example, the sale of a house—as the end goal of the litigation. Criminal litigation, however, is defined as litigation in which the end result is a criminal sanction, whether it’s a fine, forced rehabilitation, or jail. You cannot seek a criminal sanction in a civil matter, and you cannot seek a civil sanction, such as compensation for your pain and suffering after an accident, in a criminal matter.These cases are also distinct because of the evidentiary standards required of the plaintiff or prosecution in each matter. In a civil case, the plaintiff—the party who filed the litigation seeking compensation—need only prove a case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This is another way of saying that, to award a plaintiff monetary compensation, the allegations only need to be 51 percent correct. This standard is much lower than in a criminal case, because no jail time or criminal sanctions are at issue.
In a criminal case, however, the prosecutor, who is an entity of the Commonwealth, must prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt”—or a 99 percent likelihood that the defendant committed the crime. A great example of this difference is in the famous O.J. Simpson case. Simpson was acquitted of his criminal charges because the jury did not find that it was 99 percent likely he committed the crime, but he lost his civil case and had to pay compensation to the victims’ families because that jury found it was at least 51 percent likely he caused the victims’ wrongful deaths.
Finally, the last major difference between civil and criminal litigation is who can bring the litigation. A private individual can never instigate criminal proceedings. Only the Commonwealth itself may choose whether to charge and prosecute an individually criminally. Both the state and a private individual, however, can bring civil claims in Pennsylvania’s courts.
Pennsylvania Personal Injury and Car Accident Litigation
Because private individuals may not bring criminal litigation, if you were injured in a car accident, your remedy is generally going to come from civil litigation. You can bring three main causes of action in civil court after a car accident:
- Wrongful death
The most common cause of action is for negligence, which is different than a cause of action for criminal negligence, which is more akin to extreme recklessness. Negligence occurs when one person does not act in accordance with a reasonable standard of care. You must prove four elements (one of which has two parts) to sustain a negligence claim:
- Duty: The driver had a duty to operate a motor vehicle in a safe and reasonable manner.
- Breach: The driver failed to operate the vehicle in a safe, reasonable, or legal manner.
- Causation: As a result of the driver’s breach, you were involved in a motor vehicle accident.
- Damages: As a result of the accident, you sustained injuries or other compensable damage.
In a civil action, to award you compensation for your injuries, the court must only find it was more likely than not that the other driver was negligent.
Criminal Car Accident Cases
As you can imagine, not all car accidents are created equal. Some car accidents are not criminal in nature. For example, if the accident took place on a private road and there was no traffic infraction, no criminal charge for simple negligence is likely. If, however, a driver ran over someone on private property, there is still a cause of action for negligence in civil court to recover for the personal injuries sustained.
Oftentimes, however, a serious car accident will result in both criminal charges and civil litigation. If you were injured by a drunk driver, a speeding driver, or someone who simply operated a vehicle aggressively, those people may face criminal charges. Technically, traffic tickets are a part of the criminal justice system, so adjudication of a ticket would be a criminal procedure. A lawsuit to recover compensation for injuries that resulted from those people’s negligence, however, would be a civil procedure.
The specific facts of the case and nature of your damages will determine the direction of the case. For example, if a drunk driver rear-ended and totaled your vehicle, but your injuries were minor and you have not suffered physical harm, you may not want to bring a civil action after a cost-benefit analysis. However, if the drunk driver is charged with a DUI offense, you can request “restitution” be a part of his sentence. Restitution is essentially compensation for your out-of-pocket expenses, such as the cost of your vehicle or rental car fees.
Contact a Philadelphia Car Accident Attorney with Questions
If you were injured in a car accident and you believe criminal charges have been brought against the driver, contact a Philadelphia personal injury and car accident attorney to discuss your potential compensation. Whether it is settling with an insurance company, seeking restitution, or filing a civil case for your personal injuries and pain and suffering, the attorneys at the Levin Firm can help you choose the best option for you and your family. Contact them today for a free, no-risk consultation online or at (215) 825-5183.