If you've spent much time educating yourself about spinal cord injuries, you've probably run across the term “negligence.” Every state sets its own criminal and civil codes, so there are slight variations in standards from state to state for establishing criminal negligence in a spinal cord injury case. This is why it's so important to consult with a lawyer who has experience litigating spinal cord injury cases. Relying on your own research, online advice, or even the advice of a lawyer friend could produce dangerously misleading legal information.
Proving criminal negligence is typically more difficult than proving civil negligence. A criminal negligence claim won't offer you any additional benefits, though it could help sway the jury in your criminal case. It will also ensure that the person who injured you faces prosecution for his or her actions.
What is Negligence Anyway?
Every state establishes its own negligence statute, but because negligence is one of the oldest theories in the law, most states have substantially similar concepts of negligence. Negligence is simply a failure to exercise the caution that a “reasonably prudent” person would exercise in the same situation. The law demands a higher degree of competence from professionals charged with being experts in their fields. In these cases, professionals are compared to reasonably prudent people within their own fields. A doctor, then, would not be expected to behave like anyone else, but instead to exercise the caution and skill that a similarly situated doctor would.
Some examples of negligence might include:
- A lawyer failing to timely file a motion, thereby causing her client's case to be dismissed.
- A doctor failing to recommend “standard” treatment for a specific medical condition.
- A driver operating a vehicle at an unreasonably high speed.
- A business owner failing to maintain a safe environment, thereby causing a box to fall on a patron's head.
Negligence: Criminal vs. Civil
Though being incompetent can cause you to be sued, the law rarely puts people in jail for behaving negligently. If, however, the negligence is so severe that no reasonable person could possibly endorse the behavior, the conduct might rise to the degree of criminal negligence. This standard is somewhat subjective, and as with criminal negligence, state statutes vary somewhat. In general, negligence is only criminal if it is “gross” or “aggravated.” Some examples of behavior that might be criminally negligent include:
- Drag racing on an interstate, causing the death of a pedestrian.
- Keeping a loaded gun in a child's bedroom.
- Rear-ending a car while tailgating in an attempt to intimidate the driver.
What Happens in a Criminal Negligence Case?
Criminal negligence cases are matters for criminal courts, which means that the trial will be completely separate from any civil trial. You might, however, be asked to testify. Because criminal negligence cases can lead to incarceration, the standard of proof is higher than in civil cases. The prosecution must show, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that the defendant's behavior was negligent. Thus a not-guilty verdict is not a pronouncement that the defendant is innocent, but instead indicates that there was not sufficient evidence to justify sending him or her to jail.
Who Decides When to Prosecute?
Neither you nor your lawyer can independently prosecute a criminal negligence case. Instead, that decision is left to a district attorney or assistant district attorney. You can, however, increase the odds of a prosecution by contacting the police, providing the prosecutor's office with clear and succinct evidence, and being an honest witness. Prosecutors are unlikely to pursue charges if you do not wish to participate or if there is serious doubt as to whether the accused party can be convicted.
Will a Criminal Case Benefit Me?
Nothing about your life will change if the negligent party is found guilty, though you might feel vindicated when a jury of your peers sentences him or her to prison. A conviction in a criminal case does not mean that you will win your civil trial, and does not offer any promise of financial compensation. A jury, however, may be swayed by evidence that the defendant has been convicted—assuming, of course, that the judge allows you to share this information with them.
Additionally, when the jury decides on punitive damages, it may award more money if it finds the defendant's behavior particularly egregious. You will need to prove the defendant's gross negligence to attain higher punitive damages; it's insufficient to simply inform the jury of a criminal conviction.