Your landlord does nothing about the barking dog next door. You slip and fall on a patch of ice in a parking lot. You are rear-ended on the freeway. Everyday disputes like these could be the basis of a civil lawsuit. Disagreements over oral or written contracts often end up in court as well, as do fights over government regulations.
However, civil lawsuits are not the most efficient way to solve problems like these. Frequently, relatively simple matters could be tied up in court for months or years. So, at Williams Hart, we see a civil lawsuit as a last resort. Many times, a letter from one of our attorneys prompts a landlord to take action against another tenant and silence a barking dog.
Nevertheless, a civil lawsuit is often the best alternative. For example, unless accident victims file legal action within the statute of limitations, they lose all right to recovery. And, as outlined below, the plaintiff has the burden of proof in a civil claim. The more time passes, the harder it is to meet this burden.
Most plaintiffs file civil suits to obtain compensation for something bad that happened in the past or prevent something bad from happening in the future.
As the name implies, compensation is not a penalty or a fine. If the victim was hurt in an accident, no one can turn back the clock and change what happened. Monetary damages are the next best thing.
There are basically two types of damages:
Compensatory Damages: Most personal injuries result in tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, along with significant pain and suffering. Compensatory damages make up for these losses, so in a way, it is like the injury never occurred.
Punitive Damages: These additional damages are available if there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant intentionally disregarded a known risk. Punitive damages deter future misconduct, so other people do not have to go through the same thing.
Broadly speaking, stopping something bad from happening in the future is called injunctive relief. Examples include stopping a home foreclosure due to mortgage fraud and halting a discriminatory hiring practice.
In both these situations, the court must have a current dispute to decide. Generally, courts cannot resolve theoretical or academic questions.
Assume Bill and Ted each claim they own a house. They cannot work things out, so their dispute goes to court. Before the judge hears them present their cases, the house burns down. At that point, it doesn’t matter who owned the house, because the house is gone.
Burden of Proof
Some people might remember the O.J. Simpson murder case from the 1990s. After a lengthy criminal trial, a jury acquitted the former football star of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Not long thereafter, a civil jury looked at basically the same facts and declared Simpson responsible for their deaths. What’s up with that?
In criminal court, prosecutors must establish guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. That’s the law’s highest standard of evidence. Texas courts define reasonable doubt as the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act in the most important of his own affairs.
But in civil court, the burden of proof is only a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). That’s the lowest standard of evidence in Texas. If the scales of justice tip ever so slightly one way or the other, that’s a preponderance of the evidence.
So, in the Simpson saga, prosecutors did not meet their burden of proof. But the evidence available was enough to establish liability in civil court.
A third burden of proof, clear and convincing evidence, sometimes comes into play. As mentioned, plaintiffs must present this level of evidence, which is between reasonable doubt and preponderance of the proof, to obtain punitive damages. Additionally, many CPS child custody cases require clear and convincing evidence.
Judges have almost absolute control over their own courtrooms, so procedure varies in different jurisdictions. Overall, howe’ver, most personal injury and other civil suits go through the following process:
Filing Papers: The petition initiates legal proceedings in civil suits. Normally, the plaintiff must personally serve the petition on the defendant. Substitute service, usually by publication, is available in some cases.
Procedural Motions: Defendants usually file motions for summary judgement and other motions, trying to convince the judge to throw the case out of court. If the plaintiff has any evidence whatsoever, these motions usually fail.
Discovery: During this part of a civil trial, the two sides exchange information about their claims and defenses. If they disagree about what information must be shared, the judge steps in.
Resolution: Texas is one of the few states where jury trials are available in almost all cases, even very small disputes in Justice of the Peace court. Mediation is also available.
Almost all civil cases settle out of court. That settlement could occur at any time, from the very beginning to the very end.
A civil lawsuit could be the best way to resolve your civil dispute. For a confidential consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Houston, contact Williams Hart today. We routinely handle matters in Harris County and nearby jurisdictions.