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How a civil trial can succeed where a criminal trial fails

Prosecutors can only bring a case to trial if they have enough evidence to convince a jury that a crime has been committed "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is the highest standard of evidence used in court. That can sometimes make it possible for a drunk driver who causes a traumatic accident to skate by without any significant criminal penalties involved.

Fortunately, that's where a civil trial can sometimes help victims obtain a measure of justice and recover financial damages for their injuries.

Here are some of the differences between a criminal trial and a civil trial:

-- The punishment in a civil trial is generally financial, so there's no risk that the defendant will be denied his or her liberty. That allows the court to lower the standard of proof necessary for conviction to only "a preponderance of the evidence." In practical terms, that means "Is there more than a 50 percent chance that this defendant is responsible for this plaintiff's injuries?"

-- The rules of discovery are very different. In criminal trials, the prosecution's ability to ask questions directly of the defense is limited and the defendant's right to a fair trial has to be protected at all costs. In a civil trial, the plaintiff and the defendant are given an opportunity to go through discovery and extensively question the other side because the goal is to ensure that each side has an equal and level playing field.

-- Criminal trials are usually tried by juries and require a united jury to convict. Depending on your location, a civil trial may be heard by a judge or the jury may be allowed to find for the plaintiff even if they aren't entirely unanimous in their decision.

-- The defendant in a criminal trial is always given an attorney if he or she can't afford one. The defendant in a civil trial isn't given that right. That doesn't necessarily mean that he or she will be entirely without representation, however, since a defendant's insurance company will often provide an attorney.

There have been many civil cases succeed where criminal cases have either failed or never even got started. If you were injured by a drunk driver who was either never charged or never convicted in criminal court, a civil trial could bring some sense of justice to you and your family.

Source: FindLaw, "Civil Cases - The Basics," accessed Dec. 14, 2016

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