In some cases, one injury could result in both a civil lawsuit and a criminal charge. For example, driving under the influence of alcohol and causing a car accident can lead to a criminal DUI charge, as well as a civil lawsuit for resulting property damages and physical injuries. However, because the civil laws and criminal systems are separate, the same incident may result in two separate court cases.
A criminal case will be held before a criminal judge, in the criminal court system, involving the prosecutor on one side, and the defendant on the other. In a civil case, the plaintiff will be the person bringing the lawsuit, naming the defendant, and in most cases seeking money damages.
There are a number of differences between criminal court cases and civil court proceedings. One difference involves penalties and damages. In a civil case, when a judge or jury finds in your favor, you may win money damages, or force the other side to do something or refrain engaging in a particular action. However, in a criminal case, a guilty verdict could result in fines, jail time, probation, and money damages paid out to an injured party.
Due to the harsher penalties involved in a criminal case, there is also a difference in the burden of proof required to win a case. In a criminal case, the prosecutor has to prove all of the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, the burden only amounts to “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which is a lower standard of proof.
A defendant in a criminal case is also generally afforded the right to an attorney. If they cannot afford an attorney, one may be appointed for them. However, in civil cases, the plaintiff and defendant may have to find their own attorney. In many personal injury cases, a plaintiff's attorney will work on a contingent fee system, only charging their client a fee if they win their case.
Procedural Differences and the Statute of Limitations
Another difference that may impact how and when you can file a civil lawsuit has to do with the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations provides a time limit within which you can file a lawsuit. In most personal injury cases in Washington D.C., the statute of limitations is 3-years from the time the right to maintain the action accrues.
However, if the personal injury lawsuit involves conduct that may also constitute criminal activity, the statute of limitations may be shorter. Under D.C. Code Ann. § 12-301(4) allegations of assault, battery mayhem, wounding, false arrest or false imprisonment, the statute of limitations is only one year. If you are considering filing a personal injury lawsuit for an injury involving assault or battery, contact an attorney immediately to make sure you can file your claim within the statute of limitations.
Criminal Court Process In D.C.
A criminal court case may begin shortly after an individual is arrested. With some lower-level misdemeanor charges, the individual may immediately be released, and given a citation for when and where they are to appear in court. However, more serious felony charges may mean spending some time in jail, in some cases a judge may hold the individual in jail if they present a danger to the community or pose a flight risk.
The first process after an arrest involves an arraignment or presentment. Misdemeanor arraignments and felony presentments are handled in the Moultrie Courthouse. During an arraignment, the defendant is informed of the criminal charges against them and the judge makes a decision as to whether the individual can be released before their next appearance. They do not have to enter their plea at this time.
If appropriate, the judge may order a bond amount for the defendant to be released. The defendant's case is then assigned to a judge, and the defendant is notified of when and where they are scheduled for their next appearance. If they do not appear for their next hearing, a bench warrant may be issued for the defendant's arrest.
The remainder of the process will depend on the specific circumstances of the alleged crime. In some cases, the prosecution may drop their case because they do not have enough evidence. If the prosecution does follow through with a criminal charge, they may try and strike a deal known as a plea agreement. This usually involves pleading guilty to lesser criminal charges in exchange for the prosecutor dropping more serious charges.
If the prosecution and defense cannot agree on a plea deal, the case may proceed to trial. This includes gathering evidence, making disclosures, retaining expert witnesses, and taking depositions. In the case of a jury trial, the jury will hear the evidence presented by both sides, with the judge making legal determinations. After giving the jury instructions on the specific elements of the crime alleged, the jury will deliberate to determine whether the government has met their burden of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
If the defendant is found guilty by the jury, the case will continue to sentencing for the judge to determine how long the individual should be sentenced to prison or probation, and the terms of their sentencing.
Civil Court Process In D.C.
District of Columbia civil court cases are usually handled by the Superior Court. Depending on the amount of alleged damages involved, the case could be handled by the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch (cases involving $5,000 or less).
The civil lawsuit begins with filing a complaint. In the complaint, the plaintiff has set forth a cause of action against the named defendants. After the complaint is filed and served on the defendants, the defendants have 20 days to file their answer, which is a response to the causes of action set forth in the complaint. They will also include any defenses, cross-claims, and counterclaims.
After the pleading phase, the parties will continue to discovery, to gather evidence and investigate the case. This includes taking depositions, drafting interrogatories, and making requests for documents and evidence. Before proceeding to trial, each side may file pretrial motions, including motions to exclude evidence, or summary judgment motions to find in favor of one of the parties.
If the case is still not settled, it may proceed to trial. However, the vast majority of civil cases will not end up going to trial. Most cases settle before trial, saving the parties time and money, and taking away the uncertainty that may come with a jury trial.
If you were injured in an accident, contact the law firm of Gilman & Bedigian to get the help you need to file your case, and get the compensation you deserve. Our experienced attorneys have years of experience handling personal injury and medical malpractice cases throughout the DC metro area. Contact our office today for a free consultation.