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Criminal Restitution versus Civil Damages: What is the difference?

Posted at 8:02 AM, Jun 22, 2020

If you were injured in a car wreck and law enforcement issues a ticket to the person who was at-fault, you are likely entitled to recover for your vehicle damages and the costs of your injuries. But there are two different systems at work in this event: the criminal justice system, and the civil justice system. Knowing the difference can help you understand who can help you the most as you seek recovery.

What happens in the criminal case?

If someone struck you and was ticketed for careless or reckless driving, or DUI, for example, you are the victim of a crime. Law enforcement issues the ticket, and then the State, represented by prosecuting attorneys, prosecutes the at-fault driver. The prosecutor will work with you as a witness for the purpose of establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that the at-fault driver is guilty of causing the accident. Prosecutors will also consult with you regarding your thoughts on an appropriate sentence and if you have any claim for restitution. However, prosecutors are not working directly for you as an individual. Instead, their primary focus is to enforce the ticket. Prosecutors rarely, if ever, have anything to do with the insurance companies.

If prosecutors secure a conviction, then they can ask the court to impose a sentence that requires the at-fault driver to pay you restitution. Restitution simply means returning to you the value of your losses. The prosecutor will ask you to provide any records of costs. These costs typically include the vehicle repairs, medical bills, and lost wages.

Any sentence the judge imposes will have to be paid by the defendant to the court. The court, in turn, pays you.

So what is the difference in the civil case?

First, there is no civil claim unless you choose to bring one forward alone or by hiring a personal injury attorney. A personal injury attorney works directly on your behalf to help resolve the case against the at-fault party and their insurance company. Not only does this include what you are owed for your losses, but it also includes any other monetary amounts you may be owed that stem from the wreck that you would not receive in a criminal case. These complete amounts are your civil damages. Those amounts could include your damages for physical pain and suffering, emotional distress, and future losses, as well as the losses listed above.

A personal injury attorney’s priority is to make you whole. Instead of being a consulted victim, you get to make the ultimate decision whether or not to settle a case based upon the at-fault driver’s offers. Settlement will often take place outside of a courtroom in negotiations with the at-fault party’s insurance provider. If negotiations are not satisfactory, a personal injury attorney will help file a lawsuit on your behalf, represent you at all hearings, and guide you through the process.

So what do I need to do if I get in a wreck?

Hopefully your roads are safe, and you never need to make this choice. But now that you know the difference between a criminal and civil case, you can make an informed decision as to how you would like to proceed. The criminal case will move forward regardless, but if you want to maximize your recovery it is up to you to get the civil process started. A personal injury attorney, like those at Edmiston & Colton Law, can help get you on that path to full recovery. Contact Edmiston & Colton Law Firm to get your questions answered and your legal options explained. For more information, visit www.yellowstonelaw.com or call (406) 259-9986.