Can You Be Sued Even if You're "Not Guilty"?

OJ Simpson wasn’t the first person to go to court twice for the same crime

Adam Freedman
November 11, 2011

Page 1 of 3

Today’s episode: can you be sued even if you’re “not guilty?”

But first, your daily dose of legalese: This podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Guilty – But Not Guilty?

Karen from Ohio writes to tell me about a person in her neighborhood who shot and killed a burglar. Although no criminal charges were brought against the homeowner, the family of the burglar sued him -- and won.  Karen asks: “how can a civil court force someone to pay a settlement when another court has already said they are not guilty?” Great question, Karen! It’s true that a person can win a criminal action, but then go on to lose the civil action. As I’ll explain in a minute, it’s because the two actions are brought by different parties and subject to different standards of proof. 

The Difference Between Criminal Guilt and Civil Liability

The law distinguishes between criminal guilt and civil liability. If you don’t believe me, just ask OJ Simpson. On second thought, don’t bother – you’d have to visit OJ in a Nevada prison where he’s serving time for some recent felonies.   But the point is, back in 1995, Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, but then two years later was found liable to Goldman’s parents for causing Ron’s “wrongful death.”

Let me explain. “Murder” is a crime, whereas “wrongful death” is a civil wrong, otherwise known as a “tort.” Generally speaking, crimes are established so that society can punish (and, one hopes, deter) morally culpable behavior. Torts, on the other hand, are created to provide compensation to the injured.