The difference between civil law and criminal law is important to understand. While both generally try to protect individuals from harm and deal with harm once it has occurred, they do so in very different ways. Criminal law deals with punishment of criminal offenses, such as murder, burglary, or assault. A defendant in a criminal law case, if found guilty, may be subject to incarceration. On the other hand, civil law deals with disputes between two different parties, usually issues of negligence. For example, medical malpractice, slip and falls, and car accident claims may all be brought in civil court. While civil law can hold a defendant responsible for monetary damages, a defendant cannot be sent to jail in a civil trial. However, it is important for Washington, D.C. residents to understand that, despite the distinction between these two areas of law, one incident or accident can lead to both a civil and criminal trial.
When someone is injured by a criminal act, such as an assault, there is typically a criminal investigation. Many victims make the mistake of thinking that the criminal investigation is the only possible response in that situation. In fact, in many of these situations, a plaintiff can also bring an individual civil suit against the person who harmed them or another responsible party. For example, if someone is hit and killed by a drunk driver, there will likely be a criminal investigation and the driver may be charged with manslaughter. However, regardless of how the criminal trial goes, the victim’s family can also bring a negligence action against the intoxicated driver to recover for pain and suffering, medical bills, lost wages, funeral expenses, and more. Unlike a criminal trial, this civil trial can provide monetary compensation directly to those individuals most impacted and harmed by the accident.
Sometimes, the civil suit can be brought not against the alleged “criminal” but another party. This is most common in premise liability cases. In Washington, D.C., property owners are responsible for taking reasonable precautions to protect those they invite onto their property. Failure to do so can result in liability. For example, a recent state appellate case considered the wrongful death of an apartment complex’s resident. The resident was headed to work when he was robbed and shot, ultimately dying from the gunshot wound. While a criminal case was opened against the men who shot him, the victim’s family also brought a civil case against the apartment complex owner. In some cases, an apartment complex can be found negligent for not doing more to protect its residents from crime. Failure to install security cameras or patrol known dangerous areas can be evidence of negligence in this type of case. Thus, Washington D.C. plaintiffs should keep in mind that events leading to a criminal case may also lead to a civil case, allowing them to recover for the injuries suffered.