How Can a Plaintiff and a Defendant in a Civil Case Both Receive Damages?
Reviewed by Rachel Elle, Master of Accountancy and Finance Manager
While civil cases are heard before a judge or jury, just like criminal cases, there are some stark differences. For starters, unlike a criminal case, which is tried by the government on behalf of a victim, civil cases are brought to court by an individual or party who believes they deserve compensation from another party.
Additionally, there’s not always a clear winner. Instead, the judge or jury can award damages to the plaintiff, defendant, both or neither.
Civil court is a process that allows one individual or party to sue another individual or party for damages or to settle a legal dispute. While anyone can file a civil suit, a judge can toss the case out if it lacks substantial evidence. In a civil case, the plaintiff is the person or party filing the suit, while the defendant is the one being sued. Prime examples of civil suits are damages that occur through medical malpractice, slips or falls, auto accidents or lack of services rendered, such as incomplete home repairs.
During a civil suit, the plaintiff provides evidence to show that the defendant is legally responsible for damages and to what extent. The defendant can also provide evidence that shows why they aren't responsible.
There are three primary types of damages that plaintiffs sue for in civil court, including:
- Compensatory Damages: Compensatory damages refer to loss of money, such as lost wages and expenses, including medical costs and property damages. Plaintiffs can receive compensatory damages to restore them to the position they were in before the incident, but no more. For example, if the plaintiff’s car was totaled, they can receive compensation for the value of the car, but not for a new car.
- General Damages: General damages include non-compensatory amounts, such as pain and suffering. The plaintiff must prove pain and suffering to receive damages.
- Punitive Damages: A plaintiff may receive punitive damages if they can show the incident was due to the gross negligence of the defendant.
Another major difference between criminal court and civil court is how judgments are determined. In a criminal case, the jury or judge determines whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If there’s any type of reasonable doubt, the defendant should be found not guilty.
In a civil case, the bar for guilt isn't as high. Rather than finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge or jury must only find them guilty or responsible by a preponderance of evidence, which means it’s more likely than not that the defendant is responsible.
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Depending on the situation, a defendant may also receive damages from the court. Once a defendant receives papers pertaining to a civil lawsuit, they're obligated to respond within a set number of days. In this response, the defendant can explain why they feel they aren't responsible for any damages.
The defendant also has the right to countersue if they believe the plaintiff caused damages to them. If a defendant does take steps to countersue the plaintiff, both cases can be heard at the same time. In these cases, the judge or jury will look at and make a final judgment on each claim separately.
When this occurs, it’s possible for the judge or jury to award damages to both the plaintiff and the defendant. A well-known case that shows how this can happen is the Heard vs. Depp case, where the jury awarded the plaintiff $2 million and the defendant $15 million.
In many cases, civil lawsuits are settled before going to court. Often, both parties' attorneys work together to reach an agreement without the need to have a civil court trial. In some cases, the details of these settlements remain private and aren't disclosed to the public. If a mutual agreement isn't met before the trial date, then the case proceeds to court, and the judge or jury makes the final decision.
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