There are a lot of legal terms that get thrown around on TV shows and in casual conversation. Plaintiff. Defendant. Burden of proof. Beyond a reasonable doubt. Verdict. Acquittal.
But what do all these terms really mean? If you find yourself involved in any kind of real legal matter, you quickly realize how important these words are to your future.
Here is our civil vs. criminal case guide to the legal terms: plaintiff, defendant, and burden of proof. With any questions about a civil or criminal legal matter in which you or a loved one are involved, please contact the Maryland trial lawyers at Belsky & Horowitz, LLC to set up a case consultation.
How Do Criminal Law and Civil Law Differ?
The justice system is divided into two main sectors: civil law and criminal law.
Civil law cases handle disputes between two individual parties or organizations. If one party causes harm to another party through their actions or inactions, civil law seeks justice for the injured party. Typically, instead of punishing the offender, the goal is to recover financial compensation for the injured party. Car accidents, medical malpractice, product liability, and premises liability cases fall under civil law. A civil case determines if someone is liable (and therefore financially responsible) for someone else’s injuries.
Criminal law cases involve a person accused of breaking a law. The government establishes these laws, and when someone breaks them, criminal law steps in to punish the offender. More serious crimes are categorized as felonies and less serious crimes as misdemeanors. Examples of crimes that would be handled by the criminal court system include robbery, fraud, murder, and assault. A criminal case determines if someone is guilty of a crime or not.
There can be situations in which a case is both a criminal and a civil legal matter.
For example—a person becomes intoxicated, drives a car, and causes a crash, injuring another motorist. In this case, the action is a crime because the driver broke a law and operated a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Because the driver also hurt another motorist, that motorist can hold them liable through a civil lawsuit to recover compensation for property damage, medical bills, and other damages.
Now let’s discuss the terms
- Defendant, and
- Burden of proof
as they apply to civil vs. criminal cases.
The plaintiff can be seen as the accuser or the party initiating legal action.
The Plaintiff in a Civil Case
In a civil case, the plaintiff is the person filing a lawsuit against the alleged at-fault party. By doing so, they allege that the other party acted negligently or wrongfully, and, as a result, the plaintiff suffered injury. Case titles of civil cases show that these cases involve two parties against one another, such as Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants.
The Plaintiff in a Criminal Case
In a criminal case, the plaintiff is the government, frequently referred to as “The People.” Criminal cases are described in terms of the state or federal government body against the accused, as can be seen in the case titled State of Maryland v. Adnan Syed.
It’s easy to confuse the plaintiff in a criminal case with a victim. If someone is the victim of a crime and the person accused of that crime is arrested, the plaintiff is not the victim. The victim was the target of the crime, but the actual plaintiff is the government body bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator.
The defendant is the accused party. This is the person (or organization) alleged to have committed a crime or acted in a way that caused the injured party’s injuries.
The Defendant in a Civil Case
In a civil case, the defendant is the person/party accused of negligence or wrongdoing.
If a patient is injured by medical malpractice, for example, the defendant would be the doctor, hospital, or other health care provider who allegedly caused the patient harm.
The Defendant in a Criminal Case
The defendant in a criminal case is the person being accused of committing a crime.
If someone breaks into your car and steals valuable items, the police may search for the person they believe committed this act. If a person is identified, arrested, and charged with the crime, that person is the defendant in the criminal case.
The Burden of Proof
The burden of proof can be described as the standard a party must meet in order to legally prove a claim that something is true or not true. It is an obligation to establish that you are right, rather than the court assuming your words are true just because you said them. The burden of proof usually requires that varying types of evidence be produced to back up a claim as fact.
The burden of proof differs between civil and criminal cases.
The Burden of Proof in a Civil Case: “Preponderance of Evidence”
In a civil case, the plaintiff has a burden of proof to demonstrate a “preponderance of evidence.” This means that it is more likely true than not true. A preponderance of evidence can be established through proof showing that the defendant was at fault for the injuries the plaintiff suffered.
Let’s look at an example. A pedestrian is struck by a car driver while she is crossing a road at a crosswalk. As the plaintiff, the pedestrian has the burden of proof to demonstrate that it is more likely true than not that the driver was negligent and at fault for her injuries. She and her lawyer may be able to do this by showing cell phone records that prove the driver was texting the moment before the crash occurred.
The Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case: “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”
In a criminal case, the government has the burden of proof to show that the accused party, beyond a reasonable doubt, committed the act they are accused of committing.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a much higher standard than “preponderance of evidence.” While civil cases only require the plaintiff to show that something is likely true, criminal cases demand that the burden of proof be satisfied to a degree that leaves no room for doubt that the crime was committed by the defendant.
What Are the Possible Outcomes for a Civil Case?
Possible outcomes in a civil legal case are:
- Settlement: Seen in the majority of civil cases, the plaintiff’s and defendant’s sides will reach an agreement out of court that involves a determined financial amount and/or specific actions
- Court verdict: If the case is not settled out of court and goes to trial, the judge/jury can make a judgment in favor of the plaintiff, demanding that the defendant pay a determined amount in compensatory (and possibly punitive) damages
- Dismissal: When the court decides to end a case without reaching a liability determination due to a motion to dismiss or a reason determined by the court; a dismissal may be done with prejudice (meaning the plaintiff cannot bring the same claim in another court) or without prejudice (the plaintiff may bring suit again)
What Are the Possible Outcomes for a Criminal Case?
There are many ways a criminal case can reach a conclusion. A few possible outcomes in a criminal case are:
- Guilty verdict: The accused admits to committing a crime or is found by a judge/jury to have committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt
- Acquittal: The judge/jury finds that the accused is not guilty of the crime with which they were charged
- Plea bargain: An arrangement between the defendant and the prosecutors that allows the defendant to plead guilty in order to avoid a harsher sentence or additional charges
- Dismissal: The court’s decision to end a case before a conviction is made, often due to a lack of evidence, violation of rights, lack of legal basis for charges, or another type of error
This is not a complete list of all the potential outcomes of a criminal case.
If a Person Is Guilty of a Crime, Are They Also Liable for Damages?
The outcome of a criminal case does not determine the outcome of a civil case, and vice versa.
That means that a person can be acquitted of a crime but still be liable for the victim’s losses. And conversely, a person can be found guilty in criminal court but still avoid liability in a civil lawsuit.
For victims of negligence, this is good news. There is still an opportunity to recover losses like medical bills, lost income, and more—even if the person who acted negligently was not convicted of a crime.
However, both civil and criminal cases are highly complicated matters, especially when they are occurring at the same time. If you are involved in a situation like this, the best ally you can have is an experienced lawyer. A strong legal advocate will make sure your rights are upheld, and your interests are put first—always.
To learn more, contact one of the skilled and experienced attorneys at Belsky & Horowitz, LLC.
We offer free case consultations and represent clients throughout Baltimore City and Baltimore County, Montgomery County, Hagerstown, Glen Burnie, Columbia, and other areas of Maryland.