Civil Justice for Crime Victims
Every crime victim has the right to file a civil lawsuit seeking financial compensation from the perpetrator or from other parties whose unreasonable conduct gave rise to conditions that allowed the crime to occur. The consequences of crime frequently extend far beyond the criminal act. All too often, victims are left with:
- Expenses for Medical Procedures
- Lost Wages
- Physical Rehabilitation
- Property Damage
The purpose of the following is to provide victims and service providers a basic understanding of the civil justice system so that victims might consider this important option and know where to turn for help.
Restitution is the money a judge orders the offender to pay for direct and indirect out-of-pocket expenses caused by the offender’s crime. Restitution is part of the offender’s sentence and can be ordered in both adult and juvenile cases following a conviction or plea of guilty. The amount of restitution ordered by the judge depends on the victim’s expenses, which may include transportation, lost wages due to injury, and stolen or damaged property.
A criminal court cannot order restitution payments for physical pain, suffering, and emotional trauma. Victims who seek financial compensation for these types of losses must have an attorney pursue a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator or other responsible parties. Florida law provides that a court may require an offender to pay all restitution to the victim before paying fines. However, a court order does not guarantee payment of restitution by the offender.
Compensation may also be available to victims through Florida’s Crimes Compensation Trust Fund. The fund is designed to reimburse victims for certain losses and expenses resulting from crime such as:
- Counseling Fees
- Funerals Expenses
- Lost Wages
- Medical Bills
- Other Out-of-Pocket Expenses
A compensation award may be reduced by the amount of money that a victim received from insurance or other sources. No award will be made if the crime was reported more than 72 hours after its occurrence unless the Florida Division of Victim Services finds the delay to have been justified. A claim must be filed within one year of the date of the crime but exceptions can be made for good cause or for child victims.
For claims filed on or after September 23, 2015, the category caps include:
- Catastrophic Injury - $50,000
- Disability - $25,000
- Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Relation One-Time Amount of $15,000
- Funeral Expenses - $7,500
- Loss of Support - $25,000
- Medical/Mental Treatment for Adults - $10,000
- Mental Health Injury for Adult - $5,000 ($5,000 also for Minor Witnesses)
- Mental in-Patient Crisis Stabilization - $10,000
- Mental-Health Injury for Minor - $10,000
- Property Loss - $500
- Wage Loss - $15,000
There are also restrictions on eligibility for victim compensation.
For more information, contact the Florida Crime Victim Compensation Program at 800-226-6667.
Restitution and compensation often do not cover a victim’s full economic losses, and neither source pays anything for hard-to-quantify damages such as pain and suffering. A civil lawsuit may provide more complete compensation to a victim. Victims do not have to choose among restitution, compensation and filing a civil lawsuit. Victims may receive funds from all three sources, although there are checks and balances in each system to ensure that no victim is compensated for the same loss more than once. Victims may decide to pursue all three financial options at the same time to have the best change of receiving just compensation from the appropriate source as soon as possible.
Some of the benefits of civil actions may include:
- Compensation - Civil actions can provide compensation for victims for the monetary damages they suffered, such as medical expenses or lost income. Civil actions can also compensate victims for the emotional damage they have suffered.
- Control of the Case - Victims have greater control in a civil suit than in a criminal case because they are a party to the civil case, cannot be excluded from the courtroom and have final approval of settlement proposals.
- Crime prevention - In addition to suing perpetrators, victims can often sue other responsible parties. Civil actions provide economic incentives for crime prevention. Businesses sometimes fail to enact proper security measures because they view such measures as unnecessary. When businesses are held responsible for safety lapses, proper security becomes cheaper than the cost of defending lawsuits.
- Justice and Accountability - Civil suits can hold offenders directly accountable to victims. These suits give victims their day in court, regardless of whether there was a criminal conviction or any prosecution at all.
In the civil justice system, liability must be proven not beyond a reasonable doubt but by a fair preponderance of the evidence, which simply means that one side’s evidence is more persuasive than the other’s. In other words, the plaintiff must prove there is a 51% or greater chance that the defendant committed all of the elements of the particular wrong.
This standard is lower than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt required for a conviction in the criminal justice system. Therefore, it is sometimes possible to find the defendant liable in a civil case even though a verdict of not guilty was rendered in the criminal case. A civil case can also be successful even if the offender was never prosecuted.
A good example of this principle is the O.J. Simpson case. Simpson was prosecuted for the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman. The jury in the criminal case found Simpson not guilty of the murders. Despite Simpson’s acquittal, the victims’ families filed and won a civil wrongful-death lawsuit against Simpson. The jury in the civil case awarded the victims’ families monetary damages. While a criminal conviction may increase the chance of a perpetrator being held civilly liable, it is not a requirement for bringing a civil action.
The main parties in a civil suit are called plaintiffs and defendants.
Plaintiffs are the people who file the suit against the offender. They control the action, are entitled to all information relating to the case and make decisions such as whether to accept a settlement. The plaintiff in a civil suit can be the victim, survivors of the victim or people responsible for the victim. Family members who might bring a civil suit include the parents, spouse, children or siblings of the victim.
The defendants are the party against whom an action is brought. The defendants in a civil suit can be the perpetrators, people who have helped the perpetrators, or people or organizations whose negligence has in some way contributed to the commission of the crime. The defendants are the people who committed the original offense, whether or not they were found guilty in a criminal court.
In some cases, a third-party defendant may be held liable. Third-party defendants are not the people who actually commit the crimes, but instead are those parties who may have contributed to or facilitated them.
A statute of limitations is a law that sets a time limit for filing a civil suit. Any suit filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations for the offense claimed is “time-barred” and cannot proceed.
In Florida, a civil suit based on wrongful death arising out of murder, aggravated manslaughter or manslaughter may be filed against an individual at any time; it is not a requirement that the defendant was arrested, criminally charged or convicted in order to file a lawsuit against the defendant. A civil suit claiming other wrongful death must be filed no more than two years after the date of death. A civil suit claiming personal injury or property damage must be filed within four years of the injury or damage.
In Florida, a child who was the victim of a sexual battery before his or her 16th birthday may file a civil lawsuit related to that sexual battery at any time as long as the previous statute of limitation had not expired before July 1, 2010.
A victim of sexual abuse who was between the ages of 16 and 18 can file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator of the abuse within seven years after the victim turns 18 or within four years of the reasonable discovery of the harm suffered, and that the harm is shown to be the result of sexual abuse.
Judges and juries have the power to decide how much money to award as damages if the plaintiff wins. There are two main types of damages, compensatory and punitive.
The goal of compensatory damages is to pay back the injured party for losses suffered as a result of the crime.
The primary purpose of punitive damages is to punish and deter criminals or third parties. In Florida for most injury cases, the amount of punitive damages is capped to three times of the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.
The information on this page came from “Civil Justice for Victims of Crimes in Florida” published by the National Crime Victim Bar Association, an affiliate of the National Center for Victims of Crime.