How Car Crashes Result in Criminal and Civil Cases

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Getting into a car crash, regardless of the severity, can be a stressful time for everyone involved, and often the aftermath of that crash raises a lot of questions about what this means for the involved parties, what are the options for the person who didn’t cause the crash, and what does it mean legally for the at-fault party. In a recent appearance on Fox 17’s “Know the Law”  Sinas Dramis Grand Rapids Auto-Accident Attorney Tom Sinas explained that while a personal injury attorney may help their client file a civil lawsuit against the person responsible for causing the crash, depending on the details, sometimes car crashes result in criminal and civil cases.

Civil Justice System Vs. Criminal Justice System:

When it comes to understanding the justice system in the United States, it is important to understand that the system is broken down into two different, yet parallel, systems of justice: the civil justice system and the criminal justice system.

The civil justice system allows people to file lawsuits and make monetary claims against one another or against an institution that has inflicted damages upon them. The purpose of this system is to compensate the victim of these damages for the cost of their recovery or to ‘make them whole again. In the case of a car crash, cases often involve the victim in the crash filing a lawsuit to claim monetary damages from the at-fault party for their role in the crash, or against their auto insurance company for a failure to fulfill their obligation in covering the cost of these damages.

While the civil justice system is focused on making a plaintiff ‘whole again,’ the criminal justice system is focused on penalizing the defendant in a criminal case for violating criminal law. The state or federal government controls criminal justice proceedings, and in these cases, defendants potentially face consequences such as incarceration or losing their liberty for a determined amount of time. Tom explains that in the case of a car crash that resulted in serious injuries when a civil lawsuit is filed against the at-fault party, depending on the nature of the crash, not only will that person be the defendant in the civil case, but they could also at the same time, be the defendant in a criminal case. For example, if the at-fault driver was found to be driving under the influence, they could face criminal charges for violating Michigan’s drunk driving laws in addition to a civil claim.

“It’s the general idea that a person violates a number of rules and ends up not only being sued by someone else but also being prosecuted in the criminal justice system, by the state government or federal government,” said Tom. “These things can happen kind of at the same time, and there can be different outcomes in the different cases or similar outcomes in the different cases, they’re of course governed by different rules, different standards of proof.”

Car Crashes Resulting in Criminal Prosecution:

According to Michigan law, if a person commits a violation of the state’s motor vehicle code and it results in a serious injury, described as a serious impairment of a body function, or if someone is killed they may be subject to criminal prosecution. When the conduct is more serious than just a moving violation, for example, if the driver is driving under the influence, and the crash results in serious injury or death, the violation may be considered a felony. So again, in addition to the civil lawsuit brought forth by the person they hurt, criminal prosecution may also be applicable, and these types of cases can result in serious consequences including lengthy jail time, a prison sentence, and loss of liberty. In many of these cases, the defendant is also subject to civil liability to compensate the plaintiff for their monetary losses resulting from the crash.

What Victims of a Crime Should Know?

Under Michigan law, someone who is a victim of a crime has certain rights regarding their situation. In the event someone is a victim of a crime, they’ll likely be put in touch with a Victim Witness Advocate for guidance, but an important thing to note is that the victim has a right to receive updates on what’s happening in the criminal case between the person who committed the crime and the government body prosecuting that case for the following reasons:

  • They can make a victim impact statement.
  • They can claim restitution (financial losses) in the criminal case.
  • The case can affect circumstances in the civil case if applicable.

If Car Crashes Result in Criminal and Civil Cases, Which Goes First?

In the event a case is in both justice systems, while it’s not a set rule, the criminal case will likely be resolved first, before the civil case proceeds. This is primarily because the defendant in both cases has a right against self-incrimination, that could be compromised in a civil case deposition.