Civil Justice Chapter 21
Essential Questions • What are they key aspects of civil litigation? • How does the law decide what kinds and amounts of damages to pay the victim? • How does civil law differ from criminal law? • What is needed to prove liability in civil court? • What are the factors a citizen must consider in deciding whether or not to file a lawsuit?
General Information on Civil Law • In a year, Americans file more than a million lawsuits. • Lawsuits: cases in which a court is asked to settle a dispute. • Reasons: • Physical Injury • Owed Money • Rights Were Violated
Principles of Civil Law • Two main principles for settling conflict: • 1. Principle of compensation • 2. Principle of Equity
Principle of Compensation • Compensation: being “made whole” for harm caused by another person’s acts. • Damages: money that is paid in an effort to make up for a loss. • Not a fine because that would be punishment • Money does not always make up for the harm done. • What would an example be?
Principle of Equity • Equity: the use of general rules of fairness to settle conflicts. • Not all problems can be solved with money. • What would an example be? • Injunction: an order to do or not do a certain act. • Prevents future harm rather than making up for past injuries.
Types of Civil Cases • Personal Injury: physical and emotional suffering • Property Cases: damage caused either on purpose or out of carelessness. • Consumer Cases: Uniform Commercial Code (interstate commerce). • Sets basic rules for contracts: legal agreements between buyers and sellers. • Housing Cases: between landlords and tenants (lease agreements)
Types of Civil Cases • Domestic Relations Cases: family relations, most typically divorce. • Probate Cases: disagreements over how to divide up the property of a friend or relative who has passed away.
Civil Procedure: Court Filings • Civil lawsuits begin with a complaint. • Complaint: a legal document that charges someone with having caused harm. • The complaint is submitted to the court. It describes the problems and suggests a possible solution. • Answer: the defendant’s written response to a complaint. • Admit or deny the complaint • Defendant learns of the lawsuit when given a copy of the complaint and a summons. • Summons: an order to appear in court
Civil Procedure: Obtaining Evidence • Both sides of the dispute gather evidence. • Discovery: the process of gathering evidence before a trial. • Everyone involved with the case knows exactly what is being presented at trial. • Methods of Discovery: • Subpoena: a court order to produce a witness or document. • Deposition: record of answers to questions asked of a witness before a trial. • Questions can also be mailed and filled out in writing.
Juries and Verdicts • Differences between civil and criminal trials: • Criminal: more risk; jail, prison, death. Right to a jury, has to have an unanimous decision • Civil: less risk; not always a jury. Usually 6-12 people and the decision does not have to be unanimous. Could be 3/4ths. • Burden of Proof: • Criminal: beyond a reasonable doubt • Civil: with a preponderance (greater weight) of evidence. • Court decides which side is more convincing and has more reasonable evidence
Problems • Court Delays: Long process/not enough judges to handle the case loads • Causes: takes time to gather evidence and select a jury, lawyers can delay cases to help their side • High Costs: Trials are expensive • Fees: lawyer, filing court papers, payment for expert witnesses • Also cost in time and inconvenience to the parties involved • The Need for Alternatives: • High cost causes parties to settle out of court
Choices to Avoid Trial • Mediation: a process by which people agree to use a third party to help them settle a conflict. • Listens to both sides and helps to reach a compromise. • Examples of use: child custody, housing, and consumer problems. • Arbitration: the use of a third person to make a legal decision that is binding on all parties. • Listens to both sides and makes a decision each has to obey by law. • Examples of use: conflicts involving public employees (firefighters, police officers)
Choices to Avoid Trial • Private Judge: both sides hire a person to hear and decide their case. Sometimes called “rent-a-judge” • Referee: Usually a lawyer. Parties give up their right to a jury and the judge makes the final decision. • Mock Trial: what would have happened if the case went to trial. • Lawyers for each side summarize their case before a jury, which then gives them an unofficial verdict.
Lowering Cost: Small Claims Court • Small Claims Court: a civil court that people use when the amount of money they want to recover is small, usually not more than $3,000. • Examples of cases: • breach of contract • property damage • auto accidents • personal injury • bad debt • Must be age 18 or older to bring a case to a small claims court. If under, parent or guardian can file on their behalf.
Lowering Cost: Small Claims Court • Trial may take less than one hour. • Costs are not much more than a filing fee ($100) • No lawyers or juries • Both parties tell stories directly to judge • Witnesses are allowed; no formal rules for questioning them • Judge either decides the case on the spot or mails the decision to the parties in 1-2 days.
Lowering Cost • Prepaid Legal Plans: for a fixed fee, these plans cover almost all of the costs of going to court, no matter how high. • Storefront Law Offices: provide legal services for low prices. • Often located in convenient places such as shopping malls • Prepared menu of prices instead of by the hour (shop around and compare)
Bullock vs. Cigarette Company • Betty Bullock vs. The Cigarette Company • Bullock: lifelong smoker who developed lung cancer that spread throughout. • Sued the company that produced her preferred brand of cigarettes for damages. • Bullock’s lawyers argued the company was well aware of the damages but concealed the information since the 1950’s. • Charged that the company did this through campaigns of misinformation (advertising, etc.)
Bullock vs. Cigarette Company • Lawyers for the cigarette company argued that Betty knew the health risks associated with cigarettes. She had been repeatedly warned by her doctors. • The jury awarded Betty with $28 million in damages – largest verdict ever in an individual product-liability case.
Large Awards: The Debate • Subject of public debate • One Side • Large awards are needed to make up for serious losses • Largest awards are usually paid by those who can afford them (insurance companies and large businesses) • Second Side • Average American bears the burden • To cover the costs, businesses raise prices, and insurance companies raise the rates they charge their customers.