When one person causes someone else serious injuries, the victim might be able to call the police and have them arrested for a crime. If they suffered injuries and other economic damages, they might also be able to take them to civil court and file an injury case against them. It is important to understand the distinctions between these two types of cases and how a criminal case affects your civil case.
Generally, there is no requirement under Maryland law that the defendant be convicted of a crime before you take them to court for a civil case. In fact, you do not even necessarily need to press charges or have them tried in a criminal case at all; your right to a civil lawsuit is completely separate. However, having a record of a criminal conviction for the same case can often help your injury claim – and potentially help you avoid the need for a trial altogether.
For help with a civil injury case, call the Maryland personal injury attorneys at Rice, Murtha & Psoras by dialing (410) 694-7291.
Criminal vs. Civil Cases in Maryland
Court cases can typically be divided into two completely different systems: criminal court and civil court. The differences between these cases are incredibly important to understand if you are considering filing a case or pressing charges:
In a criminal court case, the case is filed by the state against the defendant – the person accused of committing a crime. The victim is treated as a witness, and they are not actually a party to this case at all. Instead, the decision of whether to press charges is left with the state prosecutor (commonly known as a “DA” or “district attorney,” even though Maryland actually uses the official title “state’s attorney” or “state’s prosecutor”).
In a criminal case, “charges” are filed for various “crimes.” For example, the defendant can be charged with assault for hitting someone and injuring them, or they can be charged with DUI for driving drunk, whether it results in an injury or not.
Penalties in a criminal case often involve fines and jail time. The focus here is to punish the defendant and keep them from committing additional crimes by reforming their behavior, keeping them away from other people by putting them in jail, or by deterring them with threats of future punishment for repeat crimes.
In a civil court case, the court deals with claims filed by a private party or individual person (the “plaintiff”) against another person or entity (the “defendant”). The plaintiff in this case is not a prosecutor but rather the victim of the crime (or their representative, if the victim was killed). These cases are usually filed with the help of an Ellicott City personal injury attorney, but that is not a strict requirement. The “defendant” is still the same person – the person who did something wrong and caused the victim’s injuries.
In a civil case, you file a “cause of action,” also known as a “tort,” against the defendant instead of filing criminal charges. In most injury cases, the cause of action is negligence, and you accuse the defendant of injuring you by causing an accident through carelessness or recklessness. However, you can also sue for intentional torts like assault and battery – which have slightly different definitions under civil law than they do under criminal law.
The penalties in a civil case are “damages” paid to the victim. The goal here is to compensate the victim for the harm they suffered by covering their medical expenses, the wages they lost because of the injury, any other economic harms caused by the injuries, and any pain and suffering they face from the accident. However, “punitive damages” can also be issued to further punish the defendant for especially wrong or dangerous behavior and to deter future similar behavior.
Can You Have a Civil Case Without a Criminal Case in Maryland?
Prosecutors and police do not have to charge people with crimes for everything that happens. In fact, many injury cases are not criminal at all, such as car accidents and slip and falls. In these cases, there is nothing the police or the government could do to file criminal charges, and victims can pursue civil cases without needing the state’s approval.
When the events in question constitute both a crime and a civil tort, a defendant can face both criminal and civil cases for the same conduct. In these cases, the government is allowed to file a civil case and pursue jail time or fines, and the victim can separately claim damages in civil court to reimburse them for the harm they suffered. This is common in cases involving assault and battery, where the conduct is both a crime and a civil tort. It is also common in cases of rape, sexual abuse, DUI accidents, robbery, and other criminal conduct that has a particular victim.
Does a Criminal Case Have to Go Before a Civil Case in Maryland?
If there is both a criminal case and a civil case, it is usually best to wait for the criminal case to finish before the civil case goes to trial. There is no need to wait to file your case – and in fact you should never wait to file because there is a 3-year deadline to file civil injury claims in Maryland. However, your civil injury case might be stalled until the criminal case is resolved first.
If the defendant pleads guilty to the crime, then that can be treated as an admission of guilt, and we can use that admission against them in civil court. If their criminal case goes to trial and the jury finds them guilty, we can also use that finding as proof of fault in a civil case.
Criminal cases have a higher “burden of proof” than civil cases. Where a criminal case needs to be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” civil cases use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which is lower and easier to meet. This means that if they are found guilty of a crime, they automatically meet the standard for a civil case as well, and you should win that case based on those findings.
If criminal charges fail and the defendant is found not guilty, you can still go to civil court afterwards because of this lower standard. It is possible that a jury could find someone at fault or “liable” in a civil case, even if a jury acquitted them in a criminal case. Additionally, some criminal charges will be dropped as part of a plea bargain in the criminal case, but that does not stop you from suing them in civil court for the same conduct.
Contact Our Maryland Personal Injury Lawyers for Help with Your Civil Injury Case
If you were injured, call (410) 694-7291 for a free case assessment with the Baltimore personal injury attorneys at Rice, Murtha & Psoras.