Americans seem very divided, to say the least, about the recent not guilty jury verdict for George Zimmerman related to the death of Trayvon Martin. Indeed, this has been one of the most emotionally charged cases in recent years. One thought I had as an attorney that has handled both civil and criminal cases is that some people may be thinking about the differences between the civil, wrongful death claims brought by Martin’s family and the criminal prosecution of Mr. Zimmerman. In Early April of this year, it was reported by the local newspapers in Florida that the parents of Trayvon Martin reached a settlement in their civil lawsuit against the homeowner’s association where Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch captain for approximately $1,000,000.00 (although the exact amount was confidential). (See Footnote 1). Then, as we all now, Zimmerman was found not guilty of the criminal charges (including second degree murder) just this past weekend. So, this leads one to think about these contrasting results.
What is a “burden of proof” and how does this differ between civil and criminal cases? The “burden of proof” is the standard by which a matter must be proven by the evidence at trial. In the case of a criminal prosecution, it is the state bringing the charges who has this burden. In the case of a civil action, it is the “plaintiff” (party seeking money or other damages) that bears this responsibility. Based upon a long series of cases and judicial history, the burden of proof in a criminal proceeding is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. “Reasonable doubt” has been further defined as “doubt that would give rise to grave uncertainty”. (See Footnote 2).
By contrast, the “burden of proof” in a civil claim for money or other damages is lower. It is defined differently in different states and jurisdictions, however, most jurisdiction, including California define the civil lawsuit proof standard as “by a preponderance of the evidence” for most types of claims and, the slightly higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence” for claims for punitive damages (damages meant to punish the defendant rather than just compensate the victim). The “preponderance” standard is further defined as simply having to show, by the evidence, that facts are “more likely true than not true.” (See Footnote 3).