There’s a misconception among a lot of adults today that the civil court system is a good backup plan to punish a person who could not be convicted in the criminal court system. The idea is if they believe someone has committed a crime but was found Not Guilty or the case was thrown out, the victim’s family can always get a civil trial and try to sue the person.
That’s usually not a good legal strategy and that’s not what the civil courts are for. Generally speaking, wrongful death cases are about accidents, not murders.
Part of what spread this idea was the OJ Simpson murder trial that took place in 1994 and 1995. After Simpson was found Not Guilty, the families of the deceased pursued a wrongful death suit in 1997, which they won.
What many people don’t understand is that those two verdicts could both be consistent with the same pool of evidence. That’s because the burden of proof for criminal cases is higher than in civil cases. For the criminal case, where Simpson was found Not Guilty, the jury was required to have evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” to return a guilty verdict and they didn’t feel that standard was met. For the civil case, the requirement was much lower, “a preponderance of the evidence.” That is, was it more likely than not that he did was he is accused of. Simpson was judged to be guilty and sentenced to pay $33.5 million.
In 2014 the lawyer for the plaintiff said Simpson has paid less than 1 percent of the settlement after 17 years. While Simpson was worth an estimated $11 million in 1994, all of that money was gone, most of it spent on legal fees. While personal injury firms like Colucci, Colucci & Marcus, P.C. work on contingency and only bill clients if they win, Simpson’s defense team had to be paid either way. Efforts to collect money from Simpson have been largely unsuccessful.
If that’s what happened when someone won a wrongful death suit against a rich celebrity, imagine trying to collect from a member of the general public. Most murderers don’t have a lot of assets to draw from, and it doesn’t matter if they had insurance.
Insurance is for accidents. If someone commits a murder, that’s not an accident and no insurance policy covers intentional murders committed by the policyholder. That doesn’t mean lawful death suits can’t win – they certainly can and do, but most of them aren’t for murder and are more likely to involve accidents that are covered by insurance.
We’re not in the revenge business. You would not get any measure of comfort from hearing that the person who harmed your family is ordered to pay a large dollar amount that will never materialize.