April 29, 2011

Chicago Medical Malpractice Lawsuits: The Difference Between Civil & Criminal Cases

by Levin & Perconti

Recent headlines about the so-called “Angel of Death” incident have led many to ask about the difference between criminal and civil legal cases as both resulted from the nursing home incident. Some Chicago medical malpractice cases also involve both civil and criminal issues. Understanding the legal system requires knowing the distinctions between each. In general, three main differences are important to distinguish: who is involved in each case, the burdens of proof, and the legal consequences.

Who Is Involved
In a civil lawsuit a private individual believes that another person, company, or government has wronged them, and they seek to be compensated for that wrong. For example, a doctor who mistakenly amputates a man’s left leg instead of his right would likely be a defendant in a civil suit for his surgical error. All medical patients are owed a reasonable level of care. These civil cases are instigated when a medical malpractice lawyer files a document known as a complaint with the court.

In a criminal matter, one side of the case is always led by a prosecutor who represents the government. Crimes are only committed when a someone specifically violates a law laid down by the legislature. For example, in the medical malpractice context, some doctors are prosecuted for Medicaid fraud—which is the crime of stealing money from the public by filing false documents to the government for reimbursement. These often go hand-in-hand with civil lawsuits filed against those doctors for mistakes, but they are two different matters. Criminal cases begin when a prosecutor files an indictment, officially accusing the person of the crime.

Legal Standards
Perhaps the most crucial distinction to be made between civil and criminal cases is the different standard of proof that a prosecutor (criminal) or plaintiff (civil) must show to be successful. In criminal matters a jury is only instructed to reach a guilty verdict if they have no reasonable doubts at all about the person’s guilt. Considering evidence is very rarely perfectly preserved, it is often easy for some reasonable doubt to sneak in (even if the person likely broke the law), leading to a not guilty verdict. However, in civil matters a jury is instructed to reach a guilty verdict so long as they believe it is more likely than not that the individual wrong was committed. That is a much easier burden to show, and therefore many cases that end in not guilty criminal verdicts still lead to fault being found in related civil cases.

The Possible Outcome
Most are likely aware that it is only in criminal trials that a defendant can be sent to jail or prison. The possibility of losing one’s freedom is one of the main reasons why a higher burden of proof is required for conviction. In civil cases the remedy is almost always either damages, injunctions, or both. Damage involves awards of money (medical expenses, compensation for pain and suffering, etc.). Injunctions are orders by the court for some action to be done or stopped. For example, a court may order a hospital to hire more nurses so that the quality of care is improved.

Trials can result from both types of cases, and both can also be resolved before trial. In criminal cases this involves a plea bargain being reached. In civil matters parties can reach a settlement to end the matter before trial.

Our Chicago medical malpractice lawyers at Levin & Perconti are experienced in filing civil lawsuits on behalf of victims of poor medical care. The law has steps in place specifically to protect the victims of medical care that falls below a reasonable standard of care. Please contact our Illinois personal injury lawyers if you or a loved one has fallen victim to the negligence or recklessness of another.

See Our Related Blog Posts:

“Angel of Death Civil Lawsuit Will Likely Have Different Outcome Than Criminal Trial

Woodstock Nursing Home Resident Died of Overdose of Non-Prescribed Drug