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After an Assault: Do I Have a Criminal or Civil Case?

After an assault, there are two types of cases that can arise. The first is a criminal case brought by the district attorney, generally requiring a Phoenix criminal defense attorney to represent you. The second is a civil injury case brought by the victim. An assault may result in one or both types of cases being brought to court. Although these two case types are formed around similar issues, there are key differences in what it takes to win each.

If you have been injured through assault, having an experienced personal injury attorney will ensure you gain the compensation and personal closure you deserve.

When you are assaulted it is important to understand how a criminal case will affect your personal injury claim. These differences will be explored below.

Importance of Intent in Personal Injury Cases

In a personal injury claim, an assault must be “intentional” to create liability. Intentional personal injury is defined in this situation as the defendant meant to commit the act that made the plaintiff apprehend they were about to be harmed.

There is a slight distinction in this rule. That is, the defendant does not need to have intent on placing the plaintiff in apprehension. The defendant just needs to intentionally act in a manner that he or she should have realized would cause the plaintiff to become apprehensive. Motives by the defendant do not have weight when it comes to winning a civil personal injury case after assault. But a sinister motive can lead to additional damages, called punitive damages.

Very important to a civil assault case is whether the plaintiff reasonably reacted to the defendant’s actions, regardless of what the defendant thought he or she was doing.

This is different than in a criminal assault case. In such a case, the prosecution has to prove that the defendant intended to harm the victim.  For the defendant to be found criminally guilty, the presiding judge or jury must determine that the defendant either ignored that he or she was harming the victim or wanted to harm the victim. This determination of criminal intent must be beyond a reasonable doubt and is called “mens rea” in legal terms.

Who controls state and civil cases?

Criminal cases go through criminal courts. This process involves a district attorney or public attorney in charges against the defendant. In these cases, the victim has little voice in how the case is conducted. But he or she may be called as a witness.

Criminal assault charges are most often misdemeanors. That is, unless the charges are for attempt(s) to cause serious injury or death, or those involving use of a deadly weapon. These serious cases are for charges of aggravated assault. In misdemeanor cases, the case may be decided by a judge without a jury, depending upon the state where the case is being heard.

In a civil assault case, the victim is the plaintiff if he or she decides to sue the defendant. In these cases, the plaintiff controls the case and the state or other public officials are not involved. When the plaintiff wins, no jail sentence is provided for the defendant. Instead, he or she must pay the amount of compensation the jury or court orders. An assault civil case will involve a jury trial, unless it is brought in small claims court.

One Assault: Both Criminal and Civil Cases

If a criminal assault case is being pursued by the state to prosecute a defendant, the defendant cannot then be sued by the victim for the same assault until that public case has ended. If the civil case already exists before a criminal case has begun, the civil matter is provided with a “stay.” This means the civil case is put on hold until the criminal trial has concluded.

The defendant’s result in a criminal case, such as guilt or innocence, can be used against the defendant in the civil case. This is under a legal doctrine known as “collateral estoppel.” Collateral estoppel is a rule used by the judge to evaluate determination of whether criminal findings can be used in the civil case without having to prove everything again the civil hearing.

Judges can be unpredictable in how they might apply collateral estoppel. Even highly skilled car accident attorneys cannot predict this. But if the defendant had a fair chance to plead his case in a criminal trial, collateral estoppel will likely be applied by the judge in the civil court case.

When It Is Time to Pursue Civil Damages for an Assault

When you have been injured by another person, whether that individual faced criminal charges through a trial or not, you have the right to pursue a civil case. A personal injury attorney is an expert in determining viability of such as case and how to proceed in ensuring your matter is heard in court.

Contact an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss your assault in a free, no-obligation consultation. A civil case may very well provide the accountability, compensation and closure you need after an assault.


Thanks to our friends and contributors from Law Offices of David Michael Cantor for their insight into the civil implications of assault charges.

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Steve Harrelson
Steve Harrelson
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