Can You Be Sued Even if You're "Not Guilty"?

OJ Simpson wasn’t the first person to go to court twice for the same crime

Adam Freedman
4-minute read

Today’s episode: can you be sued even if you’re “not guilty?”

But first, your daily dose of legalese: This podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Guilty – But Not Guilty?

Karen from Ohio writes to tell me about a person in her neighborhood who shot and killed a burglar. Although no criminal charges were brought against the homeowner, the family of the burglar sued him -- and won.  Karen asks: “how can a civil court force someone to pay a settlement when another court has already said they are not guilty?” Great question, Karen! It’s true that a person can win a criminal action, but then go on to lose the civil action. As I’ll explain in a minute, it’s because the two actions are brought by different parties and subject to different standards of proof. 

The Difference Between Criminal Guilt and Civil Liability

The law distinguishes between criminal guilt and civil liability. If you don’t believe me, just ask OJ Simpson. On second thought, don’t bother – you’d have to visit OJ in a Nevada prison where he’s serving time for some recent felonies.   But the point is, back in 1995, Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, but then two years later was found liable to Goldman’s parents for causing Ron’s “wrongful death.”

Let me explain. “Murder” is a crime, whereas “wrongful death” is a civil wrong, otherwise known as a “tort.” Generally speaking, crimes are established so that society can punish (and, one hopes, deter) morally culpable behavior. Torts, on the other hand, are created to provide compensation to the injured. 

Generally speaking, crimes are established so that society can punish (and, one hopes, deter) morally culpable behavior. Torts, on the other hand, are created to provide compensation to the injured.

The Difference Between Torts and Crimes

It just so happens that many acts -- like killing somebody -- are both crimes and torts. But this is not always the case. For example, a failed attempt to commit murder constitutes a crime (attempted murder), but if the intended victim is not harmed by the attempt, there’s no tort -- because there’s nothing to compensate. Conversely, there are plenty of torts that aren’t crimes. Defamation, for example, is the publication of words that damage a person’s reputation. You can be sued for it, but in most jurisdictions there is no corresponding crime. 

The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Cases

One easy way to remember the distinction between crimes and torts is that a criminal case is always brought by the government (acting on behalf of all the people), whereas a civil case (such as tort) is brought by a private person or entity.

That is one reason why Karen’s neighbor, like OJ Simpson, had to defend himself twice. As a general principle, every litigant has to have the chance to prove his or her case in court. In Karen’s example, the State of Ohio had its chance to bring charges, but the burglar’s family had to have its day in court as well.

Different Standards of Proof

The other reason why a criminal acquittal doesn’t get you a free pass out of civil court is that the two court systems use different standards of proof. In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In most civil cases, the plaintiff has to prove his or her case by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The bottom line -- although the law doesn’t usually speak in these terms -- is that, in a criminal case, the jury must be, say, 95% certain of the defendant’s guilt, but in most tort cases, the jury only needs to be 51% certain. So the fact that the prosecution failed to prove OJ Simpson’s guilt to a 95% standard did not preclude the Goldman family from establishing at least a 51% likelihood that Simpson had killed their son.

If You are Found Guilty, Are You Automatically Liable?

Of course, this all works very differently in reverse. If a person is found guilty in a criminal case of committing certain acts, then a civil court cannot reach an opposite conclusion. The civil court has to accept whatever facts the criminal court has found to be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Usually, a civil plaintiff still has to prove other facts to establish liability; most notably, the plaintiff has to show that he or she suffered compensable damages. Still, having a criminal conviction against your defendant makes a civil plaintiff’s case much, much easier.

One thing, at least, ought to be crystal clear: do your best to avoid committing either crimes or torts. Crime doesn’t pay -- and neither do torts.

You can send questions and comments to legal@quickanddirtytips.com or call them in to the voicemail line at 206-202-4LAW.  Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this podcast only.

Innocent and Guilty Signs image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).