Referring to the O.J. case, how can a civil court (or any legitimate court system) determine that you have indeed beat someone to death, now we are ordering you to pay damages and then you may walk free... this goes so badly against my sense of justice that I was wondering if anyone has a justification for it. In Finland where I'm from, the charge for causing a death in any way is always a criminal charge; you can't start a civil suit over it (as far as I know).
They are two different courts, with different standards of proof. In a criminal court, the standard of proof is "guilty beyond any reasonable doubt". In a civil court, the standard of proof is "more likely guilty than not guilty". Actually, in a civil court it's not "guilty", it's often "liable for damages".
It's obvious that there will always be cases where the evidence lies somewhere between these two.
Consider what the reasons for both court cases are: In the first case, it's the state against you. The state doesn't suffer any injustice if you are not convicted, and the state is very powerful, that's why the standard of proof is high. In a civil court, you have often two private persons fighting it out. If you are correctly accused of breaking my arm and I sue you for damages, then if you are not convicted, I am suffering a broken arm and all the associated pain and cost. A standard as high as in a criminal court would be entirely unfair towards the victim.
California is a common law jurisdiction and is a direct descendent of English common law as are most ex-British colonies. See What different legal-systems are there?
In common law systems there are two parallel legal systems (I actually think this is true in civil law systems like Finland's as well):
Criminal law: where the state (i.e. the government) prosecutes an alleged criminal and, if they are convicted beyond reasonable doubt by a jury of their peers (or more rarely a judge), they are punished by deprivation of life (in jurisdictions with capital punishment), liberty (including imprisonment, community service etc.) and/or by paying a fine to the government.
Civil law: where a plaintiff(s) bring a defendant(s) before the court and seek restitution in the form of an order from the court for the defendant to do (or stop doing) something and/or monetary damages. The plaintiff needs to prove the wrong on the balance of probabilities.A private person cannot punish another person, for obvious reasons.
Wrongs may be criminal or civil or both. For example:
- Speeding is an offence against the state - unless you hit someone, no one is harmed so it is not a civil wrong. The state can prosecute you (usually summarily by issuing a ticket) but no one can sue you.
- Breaking a contract is a wrong against the other party to the contract - it is not a crime. The other party can sue you but the state cannot prosecute you.
- Stealing from someone is both a crime (larceny) and a tort1 (conversion). The state can prosecute you and throw you in gaol and the person you stole from can sue you to have either their property returned or be paid compensation.
If you cause someone's death then there may be crime, usually murder or manslaughter or there may be no crime (e.g. selling people cigarettes). Irrespective, if you killed the person unjustifiably, that person (or more precisely their estate/heirs/dependents) can sue you for compensation for their loss.
Specifically, in the case of O.J. Simpson he was prosecuted for murder for which he was acquitted i.e. he was found "not guilty" and sued for wrongful death for which he was found liable and ordered to pay damages.
- A tort is a specific type of civil wrong under the equity part of the common law system (as opposed to the common law part of the common law system).