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Jim Sellers, Attorney At Law

40+ Years of experience in Personal Injury Law in both Washington and Oregon

THE PURPOSE OF CIVIL VERSUS CRIMINAL COURTS

The purpose of criminal courts is to punish the wrong doer for conduct that is criminal. However, the criminal justice system is set up to protect the innocent.

Sometimes people question why criminal defendants seemingly have so many rights. Those rights do not exist to protect criminals.

Those rights exist to protect innocent people from being convicted of crimes that they did not commit. If those rights did not exist, more innocent people would be convicted of crimes that they did not commit. Some innocent people would be put to death, and some are.

Further, it must be understood that people accused of crimes have those rights unless there is a final determination of their guilt. Until that time they are presumed innocent.

On the other hand, the purpose of civil courts hearing claims for money damages is to make the person who has experienced the loss 100% whole. It is to compensate the victim for their loss. This is not the purpose of the criminal justice system, which is to punish.

Therefore the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt to find the defendant in a criminal case guilty of a crime is for the protection of the innocent. Conversely, the lesser standard of proof in civil cases – proof by a preponderance of the evidence – is to allow the injured party to be made whole.

When a criminal defendant, who has not been found guilty of anything, and who is presumed innocent until convicted, will lose his or her liberty or life if convicted, the higher standard of proof is considered justified.

However, in a civil money damages case all that the losing party can be expected to lose is money. If the injury party loses in a civil case, the injured party loses fair compensation for his or her injuries. If the injury party wins, the defendant in a civil case merely has to pay money, usually by insurance coverage that the defendant had previously purchased.

One ancillary purpose of the civil justice system with respect to money damages claims is to solicit compliance with laws that have been developed to protect people from injury caused by the negligent or wrongful act of other people.

There are rules developed to protect innocent people from being injured by the wrongful conduct of other people. The only way to enforce those rules is to require the wrong doer to pay full compensation if the rules are broken.

Requiring wrong doers to pay full compensation to the victim of the wrong doing encourage people to exercise caution in terms of their conduct in connection with other people.

I watched as my second child was born by cesarean birth. As the surgery proceeded, I was amazed to see that a nurse did nothing other than to keep a record of the use and retrieval of each sponge used in the surgery.

There have been many, many cases in which sponges have been left in people, leading to infections and the death of the person operated upon. The method being used by my wife’s hospital – of counting sponges as they went in and came out – was as close as you could get to 100% in avoiding my wife’s death by an infecting sponge that was left in her after my daughter’s birth.

Would the written counting of sponges have been performed if the hospital had no liability for money damages if a sponge were left in? Maybe, but I doubt it. In other words, the potential for liability for money damages if a sponge were overlooked encouraged conduct that would prevent somebody’s unnecessary death.

Additional reading: Personal Injury and the Justice system, civil justice system, civil vs criminal justice system, Personal Injury and the justice system and safety net, negligence, personal injury, Civil liberties.

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