Oregon’s legal system, like that of other states, seeks to achieve many valuable goals, including the protection of our citizens from many types of harm, including wrongful death. Central to this goal is the concept that all of society benefits when wrongdoers are held accountable for their conduct. So, for example, if someone is wrongfully killed, is justice pursued through the criminal system or the civil system? In some cases, it is one or the other, and in other cases, it is both. It’s easy to understand why these concepts can seem confusing to someone who does not ordinarily deal with the legal system. In this article, we will explain the differences between civil and criminal actions, and discuss how they apply to cases of wrongful death.
What Are Some Important Differences Between Civil Law and Criminal Law?
- Who brings the action? The law considers a crime to be an offense against society as a whole. Therefore, if the government believes that a crime has been committed, the appropriate official files charges against a defendant and a government prosecutor prosecutes the case. Civil cases are disputes between individuals (including entities, such as corporations). The aggrieved party must pursue his or her own case.
- Right to an Attorney (and other constitutional rights). A criminal defendant has a constitutional right to counsel. If a defendant cannot afford counsel, the State will provide counsel and pay the attorney. A civil litigant must hire and pay for counsel, or proceed without a lawyer. The government does not provide counsel in a civil case. The constitution also provides a criminal defendant with other rights, such as fourth amendment search and seizure protections, which generally do not apply in civil cases.
- Punishment/Damages. If convicted, a criminal defendant may be subject to incarceration, probation, fines and community service. A criminal defendant also may be ordered to pay restitution to a victim if the crime caused monetary losses. In civil lawsuits, the plaintiff ordinarily wins a money judgment. In special circumstances, a court may award a plaintiff injunctive relief.
- Standard of proof. In civil cases, a plaintiff must prove his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence. This means more likely than not, or the greater weight of the evidence. In other words, if the plaintiff has just enough evidence to tilt the scales in his or her favor, a verdict in favor of the plaintiff is warranted. In criminal cases, the government must prove each and every element of its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a higher standard than the preponderance of the evidence.
What Is “Wrongful Death,” and Where Does It Fit In?
In Oregon, “wrongful death” is a civil cause of action. Oregon Revised Statutes Section 30.020 provides that the personal representative of a decedent may maintain an action against a wrongdoer who caused the death of the decedent by a wrongful act or omission. Thus, because “wrongful death” is a civil cause of action, the plaintiff must prove the case by the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence. Keep in mind that wrongful death in the civil context can result from either negligence or an intentional act. For example, deaths caused by negligent driving, medical malpractice, nursing home negligence, pharmacist negligence, and other forms of reckless or negligent conduct can give rise to a wrongful death action.
Can the Same Conduct Result in Both Civil and Criminal Liability?
Sometimes, but it depends on the circumstances. For example, assume that a person shot and killed a victim. The wrongdoer could be prosecuted by the government for a crime (such as murder or manslaughter) and also sued civilly by the deceased’s personal representative for wrongful death. On the other hand, if a truck driver negligently drove his tractor-trailer truck and killed someone in a crash, the conduct usually would not be sufficient to warrant criminal charges.
Can a Defendant Acquitted of a Crime Be Sued for Wrongful Death?
Yes, because the standards of proof are different. For example, a jury may find that there is not enough evidence to prove the criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt. However, a civil jury may find that there is sufficient evidence to find a defendant liable by the preponderance of the evidence. The O.J. Simpson case is a perfect example of just such a result.
Talk with an Attorney
At Nelson MacNeil Rayfield, we truly believe that holding wrongdoers responsible for their actions is essential to protect society. If you think a loved one has died wrongfully, please contact us with your questions or to schedule a free consultation.