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Jim Sellers, Attorney At Law

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

Civil Justice System

If you have been injured through the fault of another person or entity, your remedy will normally be pursued through the civil justice system.  The civil justice system is local courts of law that decides civil disputes between private parties. 

Sometimes the litigants are governmental entities, but those are usually not treated differently than private parties with respect to claims for money damages.

Initially, when your claim first arises, the courts are not directly involved.  That is because normally an attempt to settle your claim is made and the claim is successfully resolved without any litigation. 

However, the fact that you could bring your claim in court is what drives settlements out of court.  If the threat of your bringing an action in court did not exist, insurers for the party who injured you would never settle. 

So although your claim may be settled without your ever having to file a lawsuit, the existence of courts and potential for a lawsuit are inimical to your settling your injury claim without actually filing suit.

If we are unable to settle your injury claim satisfactorily, you can choose to have us bring a lawsuit.  Sometimes we recommend filing a lawsuit without making any attempt to first settle because we can tell from our investigation that the insurer for the at-fault party will never pay what the case is worth unless a lawsuit is filed and we have a trial date.  Even at that, some cases inevitably go to trial, usually because the insurance carrier disputes that its insured is at fault, or because what they are willing to pay in settlement is not enough.

To understand the civil justice system a little better, it helps to understand that the very same courts that hear civil claims also hear criminal cases. 

Although the wrong committed against you may also be a crime, your claim for money damages is heard as a civil case.  It may also be that the public prosecutor determines to file a criminal charge against the party who injured you. 

It could be that the at-fault party is convicted of a crime in a criminal trial and you are also able to obtain a money judgment against the at-fault party in a civil trial. Or it could be that the criminal case fails to result in a conviction but that you are nevertheless able to obtain a money judgment. 

That is possible because the state must prove a criminal charge by proof beyond any reasonable doubt, and because criminal defendants have certain rights that they do not enjoy as defendants in civil cases.

If there is a conviction in a criminal case against your defendant you are normally certain to obtain a civil judgment against the defendant in the civil trial. 

That is because the result in the criminal trial in binding against the defendant in the civil trial – the issue of the defendant’s liability was already litigated in the criminal trial.  In other words, the court in the civil trial will determine as a matter of law that the defendant is liable.  The only question for the jury will be how much money to award.

Conversely, although the criminal charges do not result in a conviction, that does not bar you from obtaining a money judgment against the defendant. 

That is because the standard of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) is higher in the criminal trial.  In the civil case, you need only prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence; you only need establish that it is more likely than not that the wrong was committed, which is a lower stand of proof than in a criminal case. 

Therefore the adverse verdict in the criminal case does not preclude a money judgment in the civil case.

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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