Late last month, the Florida Supreme Court heard an appeal of a lower court’s decision regarding the knowledge element of the State’s criminal hit-and-run statute. The facts of the case at issue involve a man who hit a 15-year-old skateboarder who had fallen into a crosswalk. According to a local news report, the man was stopped by police shortly after the accident, and he firmly maintained that he was not aware that he had struck the skateboarder.
An examination of the accident scene did not reveal any skid marks or braking, and he was not driving under the influence. The truck driver acknowledged that he had his air-conditioning, windshield wipers, and radio on at the time he hit the skateboarder. Unfortunately, the young man was dragged almost 90 feet by the truck and was continually struck by the back tires. Witnesses recounted that the young man was eventually thrown from underneath the truck, and his skateboard was spit out the back of the truck and essentially split in two. The boy suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent several months in a coma.
The Case at Trial
The man was convicted by a jury of leaving the scene of a crash, and he was subsequently sentenced to a prison sentence of two years. The truck driver appealed his sentence, asserting that the jurors were not required to determine whether they believed he was aware that he had been involved in an accident.
The appeals court agreed with the driver. The case was then taken to the Supreme Court of Florida, and they also agreed with the reversal. The Florida Justice explained that in order to have a proper felony conviction, there needs to be an analysis regarding whether the defendant “willfully” broke the law and was aware about what they were doing. Additionally, the Justice explained that the State must prove this element beyond a reasonable doubt.
Civil vs. Criminal Liability for Florida Hit-and-Run Accidents
This above decision illustrates the important distinctions between civil and criminal claims in hit-and-run accidents. It is important that victims understand that even if an individual has not been found criminally liable, that does not absolve them from civil liability. The burdens of proof, jury instructions, rules of evidence, and permissible testimony vary between civil and criminal liability, and these distinctions can make the outcomes of the cases quite different.
For example, in civil cases the burden of proof rests on the individual bringing the claim, in other words, the plaintiff. The plaintiff must prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the defendant has committed the culpable act. This differs in criminal cases, where individuals are presumed to be innocent and must be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” by the state. The “preponderance of the evidence” standard is much lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Therefore, a case that was unable to be proven in a criminal case may succeed in a trial for civil damages.
Moreover, another important distinction lies in the requirement of testimony. In civil cases, an individual may be required to testify, and, although individuals have the right to an attorney, unlike in criminal cases one is not appointed to defendants. In criminal cases, the defendant cannot be required to testify, and they possess the right to have an attorney appointed if they cannot afford one.
Have You or a Loved One Been Injured In a Hit-and-Run Accident?
As the above case illustrates, there are some important distinctions between civil and criminal cases, and even if the defendant in your case has not been charged or convicted criminally, they may still be held civilly liable to you and any others injured in the accident. In a case where the defendant has not been criminally charged, an attorney can assist you in developing the strongest civil case possible. If you are successful, you may be entitled to monetary compensation for your injuries and possibly even punitive damages, depending on the specific circumstances of your case. Contact the Holliday Karatinos Law Firm, PLLC at 866-597-0009 to schedule a free initial consultation.