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CIVIL JUSTICE SYSTEM FAQ
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What is the civil justice system?
The civil justice system is part of the American justice system. It was established to uphold, enforce, and resolve the rights and disputes of private individuals in equity and at law.
As a fundamental component of our democratic system of justice, the right to trial by jury for civil cases was memorialized in the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The job of the court is to to act as an impartial referee while enforcing the laws and until the case is resolved.
What is a "plaintiff" and what is a "defendant"?
The plaintiff is the legal status given to the party pursuing a claim in our civil justice system. They are the person or entity who files the Complaint, alleging claims against the defendant.
Meanwhile, the defendant is the legal status given to the party who is defending against civil claims asserted by the plaintiff. In response to the plaintiff's Complaint, the defendant files an Answer, responding to each of the plaintiff's allegations while also raising any claims or defense of their own.
What is the difference between the civil and criminal justice systems?
Both the civil and criminal justice systems make up the United States legal system, and each has their own purpose. Broadly, the civil justice system enforces the rights of individual persons. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system enforces government criminal statutes to deter, prevent, and punish individuals for breaking the law.
In civil cases, the private party asserting the claim is the "plaintiff." However, in criminal cases, the "State of Georgia" is the party prosecuting the defendant for breaking the law.
Another key difference is the burden of proof. In criminal cases, the defendant must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a decidedly high standard, because in our American experiment, we don't want to deprive an individual of their right to life and liberty through incarceration without reasonable certainty of their guilt.
The burden of proof in civil cases is much lower. Civil cases hold the plaintiff responsible for proving the defendant "was more responsible than not" for their wrongs, which is known as the preponderance of evidence standard.
What is the burden of proof in civil cases?
In civil cases, the burden of proof is the plaintiff’s duty - or burden - to prove the defendant is responsible for the plaintiff's injuries. "Preponderance of evidence" is the legal term for this standard of proof in civil cases.
Stated another way, the defendant is held legally liable if a jury finds that the defendant was “more likely than not” responsible for the damages to the plaintiff.
What does “preponderance of the evidence” mean?
In a civil case, an injured party – or plaintiff – has the burden of proving his/her case by what is known “preponderance of the evidence.” This means “the greater weight of evidence upon the issues involved.”
Commonly, this is illustrated by attorneys by analogizing it to equally-balanced scales. If the plaintiff tips the scales, even just slightly, this is described as preponderance of the evidence.
What does the civil process look like?
There are two general stages of the civil process for any case:
Pre-Suit Investigation and Demand: During this stage, the attorney gathers evidence, interviews witnesses, obtains medical records and expenses, and performs other preliminary matters. Then, if appropriate, a Demand Letter is sent to the insurance carrier in an attempt to resolve the case informally and without further escalation.
Litigation: When the case enters litigation, it has been formally escalated to the public courts. A Complaint is filed against the Defendant, attorneys are assigned to the Defendant, and the case is assigned to a judge. The dispute is subject to the formal court processes until it has been resolved.
How long do civil cases usually last?
Every case is different, and some can be shorter and some longer.
For instance, some civil cases settle pre-suit before the case is ever escalated to our civil justice system. Usually, this occurs between three and six months after retaining an attorney. However, once a civil case has been initiated in our court systems, it usually won't resolve until initial depositions have been taken and discovery exchanged. This can take an additional 4-6 months. If that fails, the case will be put on the trial calendar and either go to trial or reach a pre-trial settlement, which can also take several months.
If a mutual settlement is not reached, you can expect for the case to last anywhere from one to three years on average. The complexity of the case, number of parties, and conflicting court schedules can influence the life cycle of the case
Can a criminal case affect a civil case?
A criminal case can affect a civil case in several different ways. If the defendant pleads guilty to - or is convicted of - a crime that serves as the underlying basis for the civil case, this is admissible evidence in the civil case. Also, if the defendant pleads the fifth during a deposition, there is a presumption created in favor of the plaintiff in the civil case.
However, just because the criminal case can affect a civil case does not always mean it will. For instance, if the defendant's criminal charges are dropped or if a jury reaches a not guilty verdict, the entire criminal charges are completely inadmissible in the civil case.
What type of cases are in civil courts?
Civil courts hear cases that involve a dispute between a person or entity against another person usually for injuries, damages or a violation of personal rights. Here are some common cases tried in civil court:
Tort claims: A negligent act caused by one person that results in injury or damages to another person is known as a tort. Tort claims can encompass a broad spectrum of incidents from auto accidents, personal injury, medical malpractice or wrongful death.
Breach of contract: When a binding agreement or contract is not upheld or does not have a legal excuse, then there is a breach of contract. A contract is able to be breached in part or as a whole.
Equitable claim: When seeking an equitable claim, you are requesting that a certain party stop or take a certain action. This can be from a breach in contract or intellectual property theft.
Landlord/Tenant: If there has been a dispute between a landlord and their tenant then it will be settled in civil court. This can arise from anything such as eviction notices to uncooperative tenants.
What are common tort claims in civil cases?
There are several common tort claims that can be pursued in civil court, including:
Negligence: A negligent claim arises when one person is subject to the wrongdoing or preventable wrongdoing of another person. There are many varieties of negligence that can be pursued, depending on the facts of your case.
Professional Malpractice: Professional malpractice claims can be pursued against medical professionals, accountants, veterinarians, and others when they have been negligent or incompetent. Typically, these claims are more costly and difficult to prove due to the statutory requirements to bring the claims.
Product Liability: Product liability claims typically fall within one or more of four general theories of liability: defective design, defective manufacturing, failure to warn of a high risk of injury, or breach of warranty. These claims are most often pursued against the product (or component) manufacturer and/or seller.
What are common legal defenses in civil tort cases?
When a civil lawsuit is brought against you, there is several defenses you can use to protect yourself. The goal of a civil defense is to completely undermine the incident that was brought against you. Here are common defenses used in civil court:
Comparative Negligence: In Georgia, if the plaintiff is more than 50% at-fault, then the plaintiff is not entitled to any compensation as a matter of law. This is known as comparative negligence.
Apportionment: Apportionment seeks to divide liability in accordance with responsibility. Stated another way, a defendant will only be responsible for paying compensation to the degree they are found to be responsible. So, defendants routinely try to blame others for the plaintiff's injuries in order to dilute their obligation to pay full compensation.
Assumption of the Risk: This defense is used when the plaintiff knew the dangers involved with a certain action or product and voluntary engaged in that activity.
Intervening/Superseding Cause: Even though a defendant may have been negligent in some way, they will often point to an intervening - or superseding - cause for the plaintiff's injuries.
Product Misuse: In product liability cases, defendants will often point to the plaintiff's misuse of the product as the primary cause of the injuries.