Seeing clarification on liable vs guilty is common for those facing charges.
“Guilty” and “liable” both mean “legally responsible. So, in a sense, there’s no difference between these two words. But that’s not the whole story. Liability is a civil law concept, and guilty is a criminal law concept.
This L-word and this G-word both have moral implications, especially “guilty.” But courts don’t make moral judgments. Their judgments are based on evidence. For example, in 2003, the late, great Kobe Bryant basically admitted that he was morally guilty of sexual assault. But the alleged victim refused to testify, leaving prosecutors without a key witness. In other words, although he most likely “did it,” he wasn’t legally guilty.
In this post, we’ll break down the difference between liable and guilty while examining the implications these terms have for victims, be they individual victims or society as a whole.
The Purpose of Civil Court
Geneally, civil courts compensate victims. Most states have justice courts that settle petty disputes. These courts are like Judge Judy without the cameras. In most states county courts and district courts resolve larger disputes.
In a personal injury case, the aforementioned compensation usually includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Most civil claims settle out of court. Only a handful go to trial.
Civil courts also determine liability in contract disputes, employment disputes, real estate disputes, and other such matters. Usually, courts only award economic damages in these matters.
These two branches of civil law, personal injury and business disputes, sometimes overlap. For example, if Peter backs out of a real estate deal with Paul, Paul could sue Peter for tortious interference with contract. Basically, Paul argues that if Peter hadn’t led him on, he would’ve made a better business deal with someone else.
Divorce, child custody, and related matters are usually civil matters. However, these cases don’t involve liability determinations, at least in most cases. Instead, lawyers focus on child custody, child support, and other orders that benefit their clients but, at the same time, are in the best interests of the children.
Property division varies by state. Most jurisdictions are equitable division states. There’s a difference between “equally” and “equitably.” A few jurisdictions are community property states where special rules apply.
Most family law cases, like most other civil cases, settle out of court. Once again depending on the jurisdiction, a trial could be before a judge or a jury.
A money judgment resolves most civil disputes. In some cases, especially employment law cases, courts might also issue consent decrees that order the parties to behave differently (e.g. sensitivity training in a job discrimination case). Civil judgements hardly ever involve jail time or court supervision.
The Purpose of Criminal Court
Criminal court judgments, in contrast, almost always involve jail time and/or court supervision, usually probation and parole. The defendant might be a natural person or an artificial person, like a corporation. Prosecutors could file charges in federal, state, or municipal (city) court, depending on the severity of the offense and the place it occurred.
Prosecutors, not individuals, file criminal court cases. The victim, like the alleged victim in the Bryant sexual assault case, is simply a material witness. Victims have a great deal of control over civil liability determinations. They have little or no control over criminal prosecutions and guilt determinations.
As for the underlying purpose of criminal court, some argue it’s punishment. Others argue it’s deterrence. A good case could be made for either viewpoint.
One thing is certain. Criminal courts don’t fully compensate victims. Assume John broke Jim’s leg during a fight. Prosecutors charge John with aggravated assault. If he’s found guilty, or if he voluntarily pleads guilty, John might have to pay part of Jim’s medical bills as part of the court supervision deal.
Some states have crime victim compensation funds that give victims a little more money, usually medical bill reimbursement, in some cases.
However, if the court determines that John is not guilty (i.e. there’s not enough evidence to convict him), Jim gets nothing from John and nothing from the VCF.
A Famous (or Infamous) Example of Criminal Law Guilt and Civil Law Liability
In 1994, prosecutors charged former NFL star O.J. Simpson with killing his ex-wife and her companion. The next year, after a lengthy and sensational trial, jurors concluded that Simpson was not guilty.
During this saga, one of the victim’s families filed a civil wrongful death action against Simpson. AFter hearing basically the same evidence, this jury concluded that Simpson was liable for the deaths of these two people.
These trials were completely separate and therefore completely legal. The government charged Simpson with murder and the Ron Goldman family alleged that Simpson caused a wrongful death.
How could one jury conclude that Simpson was not legally responsible and the other reach the opposite conclusion? Simple. The burden of proof is different in criminal and civil cases.
Criminal prosecutors must establish guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. Prosecutors only had circumstantial evidence, such as the famous latex glove, in the Simpson case. Circumstantial evidence could be enough to convict someone. In this case, it wasn’t, especially since Simpson’s lawyers questioned the primary detective’s ability to be fair.
The Goldman family’s lawyers had the same circumstantial evidence. But the burden of proof in civil court is only a preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not. Simpson was the primary suspect in the case, so it was certainly more likely than not that he was liable for the deaths.
Additionally, a presumption of innocence applies in criminal court. Defendants basically get head starts. There’s no “presumption of not liable” in civil court. Plaintiffs and defendants start at the same time.
When Criminal and Civil Cases Overlap
Way back in the day, civil and criminal cases often overlapped. Prosecutors often filed criminal charges for wives trying to track down runaway husbands. More recently, alleged domestic battery victims could refuse to testify and thereby “drop” criminal charges.
Today, these forums are separate. Emergency responders often don’t issue citations in car accident cases, since they consider the matter to be a civil dispute. Furthermore, most states have changed the domestic battery prosecution rules. The alleged victim is simply another witness whom prosecutors can subpoena and force to testify.
Nevertheless, there’s still some liability and guilty overlap. DUI collision cases are a good example. Most states charge drunk drivers who cause injury with vehicular assault, involuntary manslaughter, or a similar crime. On the civil side, these drivers violated the duty of care and are thus subject to liability.
Assume Jerry and Michael are in a car that rear-ends Lisa, killing her instantly. When police officers arrive, both Jerry and Michael have been transported to a hospital. Blood tests reveal they were both intoxicated. They refuse to speak with officers and answer their questions. Officers charge Jerry with intoxication manslaughter.
These charges won’t hold up in criminal court unless a credible witness places Jerry behind the wheel at or near the time of the accident. Without such a witness, prosecutors would be very hard-pressed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jerry was the driver.
Incidentally, credibility means reliability. There’s a difference between reliability and accuracy. Sometimes a blind squirrel finds a nut.
However, wrongful death charges against either Jerry or Michael would probably hold up in civil court. It’s more likely than not that Jerry or Michael, as opposed to Steve or anyone else, was driving the car.
On a related note, there’s a difference between alcohol intoxication and alcohol impairment. Most people are intoxicated after they have three or four drinks. But alcohol impairment begins at the first drink. These impairing effects include clouded judgment and slow reflexes.