This guest post is from attorney Maggie Jaynes, of King Law Offices, Shelby, NC.
Personal injury actions are actions where one person has caused (usually by negligence) injury to the person and/or property of another. Most commonly, this will come about through car accidents; although any type of injury that results from the negligence of someone else may be able to be categorized as personal injury. Therefore, negligent use of machinery; leaving a dangerous condition on property whereby someone gets injured; “slip and fall” at places of business; dog bites; etc., may all be classified as personal injury. These types of cases are not criminal matters, but civil ones.
In fact, there are at least two broad categories of judicial actions that we can coarsely define as “civil” and “criminal,” at least for the sake of this discussion. Criminal cases are fairly easy to understand – these are violations against the State, even if the majority of the public does not see if that way. In my home state of North Carolina, most crimes are found in Chapter 14 of the North Carolina General Statutes. Again, for the sake of this discussion, we will just say that most everything else falls under the heading of “civil.”
As such there are two types of standards that a judge or jury will apply in a criminal and civil case. In a criminal matter, this is defined as “beyond a reasonable doubt”; that is, for a defendant to be convicted of a crime by which he is charged, the judge or jury must find that he committed the offense “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For a civil matter, including personal injury, the standard is quite different.
In personal injury matters, the defendant (still referred to as “defendant,” even though no crime has been committed) must be shown to have committed the injury, etc., by a “preponderance of the evidence,” commonly understood as “more likely than not.” As you can see, the difference between these two standards are stark – a criminal conviction requires that the fact-finder be well above “more likely than not” that the Defendant committed the crime.
Often, though, when someone is in an accident, the person who caused the accident might be charged with an infraction or misdemeanor by the responding officer. In such a case, the officer is essentially charging the driver who caused the accident with some crime or infraction, alleging that the person did something wrong under the criminal statutes.
Normally, a defendant in that criminal action does not have much of a defense to these low-level misdemeanors or infractions and will often enter a guilty plea through some sort of arrangement with the district attorney or prosecuting attorney. When that happens, the defendant in the criminal action is essentially “admitting” that he committed an action that may have caused the accident, and that he was at least negligent in his actions.
By doing that, or by being found guilty, it would have already been shown that the defendant in the criminal action did something wrong “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In that case, clearly that same defendant has already met the lower standard of “preponderance of the evidence”; that is if the Defendant is guilty of a crime or infraction that caused the accident, then the Defendant is at least responsible for the accident in a corresponding civil case.
Ultimately, then, that means that the attorney representing the injured party in a personal injury action against the Defendant, who has been charged and found guilty of a crime or infraction arising from the accident, may be able to use the criminal conviction to establish liability in the civil action. A good attorney will advise you of this and attempt to work the civil matter around the criminal charge, instead of attempting to reach a quick settlement. After all, once liability is established, the insurance companies in the civil matter have a harder time to defend!