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Civil Law

Further Readings

Civil Law Versus Criminal Law
Civil law refers to a wide array of rules that govern legal matters among private citizens such as injuries, broken contracts, trademark infringement, andfraud. Civil law cases involve either a breach of duty or contract. In addition, civil law actions--suits in civil court--are brought about by private citizens, whereas criminal prosecutions are brought about by the government. Furthermore, civil law remedies for wrongful acts include monetary damages or reimbursements, and injuctions or court orders requiring or banning certain kinds of conduct. In contrast to criminal cases, the defendant--the party accused of being liable for wrongful acts--is not subject to fines or imprisonment.
Overview and Background
The most common kind of civil court cases in the United States are tort cases, which include cases of intentional wrongs, negligence and liability such asfraud, defamation, trespassing, and false imprisonment. Tort is the Middle English word meaning "wrong." The plaintiff--the party that suffered the wrongful act and seeks relief in court--is entitled to be restored to the position he or she was in before the tort, whether through economic compensation, medical care, or any other means. This right makes up a fundamental principle of U.S. tort law. Unlike contracts, torts do not involve the violation of any agreed upon course of action. Instead, torts involve the failure to actin a manner generally expected for any given situation. In the 1990s, the majority of tort actions stemmed from automobile injuries and more than 50 percent of all tort cases took at least a year to process.
Every tort case must establish three things. One, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant was bound by a legal duty to act in a certain way. Two, the plaintiff must show that the defendant violated his or her legal duty by failing to act in a certain way. Three, the plaintiff must establish that he or she suffered damages--injuries or losses--as a direct consequence of thedefendant's failure to act in the expected way.
Civil law has four main goals. First, it provides an avenue to compensate victims for injuries suffered as a result of the negligent action of others. Second, it holds the party that caused any injuries or damages responsible for the cost of them. Third, civil law seeks to prevent the future occurrence of negligent, careless, and risky behavior that leads to civil law actions. Fourth, it upholds the rights of people who have suffered injuries or damages as aresult of the negligent party.
Civil law cases involve broken agreements and contracts, negligence, strict liability, and intentional wrongful acts--each of which will be explained briefly below. Broken agreements include breaches of written and verbal contractsbetween two or more parties, which one of the parties finds necessary to resolve through a civil action. Negligence refers to conduct that deviates fromwhat is generally expected in any given situation and covers acts such as careless and reckless driving. Many injury civil actions result from negligence,careless behavior that increases the chances of injuries to people or damageto property.
Intentional wrongs include acts that the perpetrator carries out knowing thatthey are harmful to people or property, such as assault, battery, fraud, anddefamation. When civil law cases hold defendants liable who are not negligent or guilty of intentionally committing wrongful acts, they impose strict liability, which covers beneficial and necessary activities that create high levels of risk to society. Such activities include those involving hazardous materials and substances.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, the number of civil cases rose with the adoption of new liability and negligence policies, which made iteasier to sue manufacturers and service providers. The growth stemmed partially from efforts by legal theorists to reduce injuries suffered by consumers,who, these theorists assumed, paid little attention to risks and bought verylittle accident insurance. To lessen the burden on consumers, these theoristsstrove to shift more responsibility to producers of goods and providers of services.
Prior to the new tort policies, consumers bore the burden of determining whether products or services they purchased were safe. Afterwards, employers, doctors, and manufacturers among others held a greater share of the responsibility for damages suffered by consumers from defective products and negligent services.
A key case that ushered in the new tort policies was Vandermark v. MaywoodBell Ford. In 1958, Chester Vandermark purchased a new car from the Maywood Bell Ford dealership in California. Six weeks later, the car began to malfunction while Chester and his sister Mary were driving in it. Because the brakes failed, the car crashed into a pole, seriously injuring both Vandermarks. They sued the dealer, which denied all responsibility. However, the California Supreme court decided that Maywood Bell Ford was responsible because it acted as "an integral part of the overall producing and marketing enterprise that should bear the cost of injuries resulting from defective products." Other cases such as MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. created a precedent forholding manufacturers responsible for hazardous products later sold to customers who sustain injuries from them. These cases extended the responsibility for dangerous and defective products from retailers back to the manufacturersof the products in order to protect consumers.
Some Like It Hot: Civil Lawsuit Controversy
Of the cases occurring after Vandermark and the shift in liability, Liebeck v. McDonald's stands out as the one case most often quoted, especially in a discussion of tort reform. In 1994, a jury awarded Stella Liebeck$2.9 million in punitive damages for injuries suffered from spilling McDonald's coffee on her lap. The coffee--kept at 180 degrees--caused third-degree burns and Liebeck spent seven days in the hospital and received multiple skingrafts. A judge reduced the award to $480,000 and the two parties ultimatelysettled for an undisclosed amount. Critics of the liability shift often referto this case as a "frivolous lawsuit" with an outrageous award. However, supporters of the court's current view of liability point out that Liebeck initially only sought reimbursement for her medical costs, but the fast food chainrefused to negotiate. Liebeck then hired an attorney who had settled anothercoffee case with McDonald's. During the trial, the attorney exposed companydocuments that showed about 700 reports of coffee burns, including other complaints of third degree burns. Nevertheless, the company failed to implement safer packaging or warn customers until after Liebeck.
Punitive Damage Awards Supply Government with Tax Revenues
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in December of 1996 that punitive damages awarded in personal injury cases were taxable (O'glivie v. United States). In this case, the family of a woman who died of toxic shock syndrome was awarded $1.5 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages from International Playtex Inc. The family paid federal income tax on the punitive damage award, but requested a refund, arguing that the Internal Revenue Service's definition of gross income does not include damages received from personal injuries or sickness awards. However, the Court held that the family's damages were not received "on account of personal injuries; hence, the gross-income exclusion provision does not apply and the damages are taxable." The Courtreasoned that punitive damages are not awarded to compensate for injuries but "to punish reprehensible conduct and to deter its future occurrence."
Double Jeopardy: Civil Suits after Criminal Trials
The civil suit by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman against O.J. Simpson brought national and international attention to an ongoingtrend in the U.S. legal system where families seek retribution in civil courts for defendants that are found guilty or even acquitted in criminal courts.Instead of being charged with murder as in the criminal trial, Simpson was sued for wrongful death by the families of victims in the civil trial. Though Simpson was acquitted in the criminal case, he was found negligent in the civil action against him and ordered to pay about $33 million in damages. Legal experts contend that crime victims prefer civil trials to criminal trials because of their "lighter" burden of proof, where the plaintiffs need not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a wrongful act in orderto be compensated. Furthermore, jury decisions do not have to be unanimous in civil cases as in criminal cases. Instead, a jury majority is all that is necessary. Although someone acquitted in a criminal trial cannot be prosecutedfor the same crime again, he or she can be tried in civil court for the samewrongful act.
Call for Tort Reform
Because of litigation perceived as frivolous and because of the rising costsof insurance to protect producers and providers of goods and services from lawsuits, manufacturers, critics of tort law and politicians have called for sweeping tort reform that would limit liability and place caps on punitive damage awards. However, even bills for much more modest reforms have failed to become law. In 1996, a Republican-sponsored bill curbing product liability passed through Congress, but President Clinton vetoed it. In mid-1998, Congress debated a similar bill with compromises that Clinton would accept. The bill would limit punitive damage awards to $250,000 in cases against small businesses.

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