When one thinks of a personal injury case, one generally speaks of an injury accident in which another person acted carelessly or recklessly and in doing so causes injury to a victim. But not every injury accident is caused by someone’s carelessness: sometimes one person acts deliberately in causing harm to another. These personal injury incidents can also be compensated through a personal injury lawsuit.
Negligence vs. Intention – Why the Distinction Matters
The biggest difference between a personal injury lawsuit premised on negligence and one premised on intentional conduct is that in the intentional personal injury case punitive damages can often be imposed on the defendant (the one accused of behaving intentionally). Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for deliberately acting to cause someone else harm. Punitive damages are meant to dissuade the defendant and anyone else who may think to engage in similar behavior from doing the sort of activity the defendant did in the future. Punitive damages go above and beyond the compensatory damages the plaintiff may also be awarded.
Civil Lawsuit vs. Criminal Lawsuit
In many cases, a defendant who deliberately causes harm to a plaintiff can be held civilly responsible for the damage he or she causes and can also be charged with a criminal act. If convicted of a crime, the defendant may have to pay a fine and/or serve a period of incarceration. There are other significant differences between a civil lawsuit and a criminal lawsuit:
- In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff is the injured person; in a criminal lawsuit, the injured “persons” are the people of the State of California;
- In a civil lawsuit, the case is prosecuted by the injured plaintiff and an attorney he or she hires; in a criminal lawsuit, government prosecutors present the case on behalf of the State of California;
- In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence; in a criminal lawsuit, the defendant must be proven guilty by proof beyond a reasonable doubt; and
- In a civil lawsuit tried to a jury, the jury’s verdict need not be unanimous in some cases; in a criminal lawsuit, the jury’s verdict must be unanimous.
Oftentimes the criminal case will be litigated before the civil case is resolved. This is done because if a guilty verdict is reached in the criminal case, this verdict can be used to resolve the civil case in the plaintiff’s favor without having to go to court (thus saving the plaintiff time and money). If the criminal case results in a “not guilty” verdict, the plaintiff can still bring a civil lawsuit and seek damages in a forum that does not require as convincing proof of liability. (The best example of this is the O.J. Simpson murder trial: although acquitted by a jury in the criminal case, O.J. Simpson was found civilly responsible for the deaths of Mr. Goldman and Ms. Brown Simpson.)
Common Intentional Torts
Common intentional acts (“torts”) that can result in civil and/or criminal liability include:
- Battery: Intentionally striking another person, regardless of whether serious injury occurs;
- Assault: Deliberately placing someone in fear of being struck;
- Libel/Slander: Defaming a person’s name or reputation by a false spoken or printed word; and
- Destruction of property: Deliberately damaging a person’s property by fire, explosive, or some other means.
An experienced California intentional torts lawyer can help injury victims discover whether criminal charges will be filed against the defendant and how the victim should proceed in his or her civil case against the defendant so as to preserve the victim’s legal rights.