March 03, 2017
Can a Civil Lawsuit Turn Into a Criminal Lawsuit?
Since most people rarely actively participate in the American justice system, it isn’t surprising that the line between civil lawsuits and criminal proceedings can seem blurry. The reality is that a civil lawsuit and a criminal trial are two completely different entities. The result in one proceeding has no bearing on the result in another, and a civil lawsuit can never be turned into a criminal proceeding. However, it is important to note that a civil lawsuit may trigger a concurrent or subsequent criminal trial.
In fact, the reverse is also true. Most of the time the criminal proceedings commence first, and it is not until they are concluded that a civil lawsuit is begun. This is a common practice because prosecutors are concerned that the victim’s credibility may be damaged by their interest in a prior civil claim. Most jurisdictions permit a longer statute of limitations for beginning a civil lawsuit so that criminal proceedings can be wrapped up first.
In rarer cases, a civil lawsuit can spawn a criminal case. For instance, the discovery conducted during the civil lawsuit may uncover criminal wrongdoing on the part of the defendant. If law enforcement takes sufficient notice of this criminal wrongdoing, it’s possible for the defendant to be arrested and subsequently tried in a criminal court.
Regardless of whether the civil lawsuit or the criminal matter get underway first, the outcome of one has no bearing on the other. A well-known example of this concept occurred in the OJ Simpson murder trial. In the criminal case, Simpson was found not guilty. Later, a civil lawsuit filed by the families of the victims found in their favor, and Simpson was found financially liable for the deaths of two people.
When both civil and criminal matters are tried, much of the same discovery and the same witnesses are used in both proceedings. The result is typically a streamlined, more efficient prosecution for whichever case is tried last.