In a civil lawsuit, the victim brings a case for money damages against the offender or a third party for causing physical or emotional injuries. Regardless of the outcome of any criminal prosecution, or even if there was no prosecution, crime victims can file civil lawsuits against offenders and other responsible parties. The person who starts the lawsuit is called the plaintiff, and the person or entity against whom the case is brought is called the defendant. Unlike a criminal case, in which the central question is whether the offender is guilty of the crime, in a civil lawsuit, the question is whether an offender or a third party is responsible for the injuries suffered.
In a civil suit, unlike a criminal prosecution, the plaintiff is responsible for the cost of litigation. Most attorneys handle victim cases on a contingency basis, which means that the attorney fee is deducted from the final award. This allows individuals to have access to the civil justice system without the need to finance the case themselves. If the case is not successful, the victim usually pays nothing. In a civil suit, the attorney directly represents the victim’s interests and the victim has greater control in case decision-making than in a criminal prosecution.
This standard of proof in a civil lawsuit is significantly easier to satisfy than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of a criminal case. In a civil lawsuit, the case must be proved by a “preponderance of the evidence,” that is, by enough evidence to conclude that it is more likely than not that the victim’s claims are true. A victim can still pursue a civil lawsuit, even if the criminal prosecution resulted in a “not guilty” verdict. Criminal prosecutions require a unanimous decision by all twelve jurors, which can be difficult to achieve. Civil lawsuits require agreement by only ten of twelve jurors for a decision. These significant differences between civil and criminal cases were underscored in the highly publicized O.J. Simpson case. The families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were able to obtain a $33.5 million dollar settlement against O.J. Simpson in civil court even though he had been acquitted of the murders in the criminal prosecution.
Civil lawyers sometimes work alone or sometimes in a practice with other lawyers. Generally, civil lawyers only handle cases in the state or federal courts in which they are licensed to practice law. Unlike doctors, lawyers do not have formal specializations based on tests and clinical practice. Instead, lawyers develop expertise in particular areas by handling cases in those areas and keeping up to date on legal developments. As with most legal matters, crime victims are well advised to seek lawyers with experience handling these types of claims. Crime victim recovery cases are usually billed on a contingency basis — the lawyer receives a percentage of the victim’s award of damages as a fee only if there is a successful outcome. This enables far more victims to have their day in court than if victims had to pay a lawyer an hourly rate for services, which many people could not afford.
Many lawyers also employ paralegals, legal assistants, private investigators and secretaries to assist in the case. These professionals frequently have direct contact with victims and communicate regularly with the lawyer.