Understanding the differences and similarities between civil and criminal lawsuits in South Carolina
Many people are unclear about the distinction between criminal and civil law. These differences frequently come to a head in driving under the influence (DUI) cases, which can lead to both criminal and civil actions.
Consider the all too familiar scenario of a person who drinks too much alcohol at a New Year’s Eve party and injures another person in a car accident while driving home. This incident will likely lead to 2 separate legal cases:
- A criminal DUI action filed by the local prosecutor
- A civil case filed by the accident victim seeking compensation for their injuries
What are the differences between criminal and civil law in South Carolina?
To help you understand the fundamental differences between criminal and civil law, we’ll discuss the purposes, enforcement, burden of proof and punishment for each.
Purpose of criminal and civil law
To understand why the singular act of driving under the influence can lead to 2 separate legal cases, you need to know why both criminal and civil law exist.
Purpose of criminal law
The purpose of criminal law is to deter and punish actions by citizens that threaten the social order. Its purpose is to govern the relationship between the state and its citizens. In criminal law theory, the criminal’s act violates the implied “social contract” that allows society to function.
Consequently, the state is the “injured party” and not an individual. As a result, the state (represented by the prosecutor) is the party that files a criminal case against a drunk driver.
Purpose of civil law
By contrast, civil law exists to govern the relationship between citizens. Civil actions generally involve enforcing duties that citizens have to one another and lack the sense of “moral wrong” that characterizes criminal cases. Thus, civil cases focus on “making the victim whole” rather than punishing the person who failed to fulfill their duty.
Since the injured party in a civil case is the accident victim, the person harmed by a drunk driver files a civil action instead of a prosecutor.
Because the perpetrator of a DUI violates 2 different social relationships, it requires separate legal actions to enforce them.
Enforcement of criminal and civil cases in South Carolina
Because criminal and civil laws have different purposes, the state enforces them in different ways:
Criminal law enforcement
Since criminal law is focused on maintaining social order, penalties can include prison sentences that aim to:
- Protect society by removing criminals
- Deter others from committing similar acts
- Rehabilitate offenders through various treatment programs
Civil law enforcement
On the other hand, civil law is aimed at compensating the victim. Typically, civil penalties involve monetary awards. They can also include judicial orders designed to put the victim where they would have been had the violator not committed the proscribed act. A specific example is instructing an employer to restore the plaintiff’s job in a wrongful termination case.
Does intent matter in criminal and civil cases in South Carolina?
All criminal cases require the prosecution to prove the defendant had the required intent to commit a crime. Conversely, some civil cases require intent, but many do not.
Intent in criminal cases
In criminal law, the prosecution can show intent by proving the defendant is guilty of either specific intent to commit a criminal act or reckless disregard of criminal norms.
Our New Year’s Eve drunk driver had the required criminal intent if they knowingly drove while impaired or recklessly put themselves in a situation where they were likely to drive drunk.
Intent in civil cases
Conversely, prosecutors in civil cases don’t necessarily have to prove intent for the defendant to be found guilty. A civil case in the DUI scenario, for example, only requires a driver to have breached their duty of operating a car with reasonable safety. A driver can breach this duty through mere negligence while having no intention of driving in an unsafe manner.
For example, suppose our New Year’s Eve partier drank 4 Margaritas but tested under the legal limit on a defective breathalyzer machine provided by the bar. In that case, the defendant could avoid criminal culpability for a DUI due to lack of intent. However, consuming 4 drinks and then driving a car would almost certainly qualify as negligence in a civil case. Thus, the defendant could escape criminal prosecution for a DUI and still be held liable for injuries caused by the wreck in a civil case.
Causation and damages in criminal and civil cases in South Carolina
A civil case requires that the defendant’s actions cause harm to another person, while criminal cases do not.
Our New Year’s Eve drunk driver could be guilty of a criminal DUI if the police discovered him driving home while intoxicated. The prosecution only has to prove that the driver had criminal intent (mens rea) while committing a criminal act (actus reus).
Conversely, in a civil breach of duty case, the negligent action needs to cause damage to another person. So, for example, if our New Year’s Eve drunk driver slammed their car into a snowbank but caused no harm to another person or their property, there’s no civil case.
However, the driver can be found guilty of a criminal DUI if they fail a blood alcohol test administered by the police, even if the wreck causes no harm to any person or property.
Standard of proof in South Carolina criminal and civil cases
In criminal and civil cases, the party bringing legal action must establish that the defendant committed the required acts. However, criminal cases require a more stringent standard of proof.
In most jurisdictions, the criminal standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This standard means that the jury must find that the prosecution has proved all required elements of the case with a high level of certainty.
Conversely, the standard of proof for civil cases is much lower. Most jurisdictions only require the plaintiff to establish the necessary legal elements to a “more likely than not” standard. Lawyers frequently refer to this standard as “51 percent certainty.”
The bottom line is that it’s much easier to prove guilt in a civil case than in a criminal one. This lower standard of proof means that defendants can frequently win acquittal from criminal charges while still being held liable in a civil action.
What are the similarities between civil and criminal law in South Carolina?
Burden of proof in criminal and civil cases
Although the burden of proof differs in civil and criminal cases, in both cases, the party that files legal action must prove the defendant committed the alleged acts. For criminal cases, prosecutors representing the state file the case against the defendant. In civil cases, the injured party brings the action.
Facts of the case in South Carolina courts
In both criminal and civil cases, the party that brings legal action must prove similar underlying facts. In our DUI example, establishing that the defendant was driving the car and their blood-alcohol level exceeded statutory norms would be necessary to win either case.
If you’ve been injured by a negligent party in South Carolina, it’s important to understand your rights. At Chappell, Chappell and Newman, our personal injury attorneys have more than 30 years of experience helping people recover damages after an injury. Contact us today for your free consultation so we can help you get the compensation you deserve.