There are two different standards of proof in criminal and civil trials. In a criminal case, a jury must find that the person charged is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to convict the defendant. In a civil case – like those involving car and other accidents, contract disputes, etc. – the standard is a “preponderance of the evidence.” In other words, the jury must find that the person or entity being sued is more likely than not responsible in order to rule against the defendant. As a recent case out of West Virginia’s Supreme Court shows, it’s easy to get the two standards confused.
Ms. Spencer sued Mr. Flint for negligence, alleging that he backed into her with his car during an accident in May 2010. Spencer said she was getting out of the passenger side of a vehicle in Morgantown when Flint clipped her as he was backing his car out from the next parking space. Flint said she suffered wrist and ankle injuries, a concussion, and post-traumatic occipital neuralgia as a result of the accident. She also said she racked up about $17,000 in related medical costs. Spencer’s doctor later testified that those injuries were consistent with her version of the events.
Flint argued that there was no evidence that the accident actually occurred. He claimed that he didn’t see of feel the car collide with anyone, but he said he stopped the vehicle and got out when he saw Spencer on the ground next to him. He said both Spencer and the driver of Spencer’s car told him that he’d hit Spencer. To the extent that the vehicle did hit Spencer, Flint said he wasn’t negligent because he was acting reasonably at the time by focusing on backing out into a busy street. The jury eventually sided with Flint, finding that he wasn’t negligent.
On appeal, Spencer argued that the trial court should have struck the jury for bias. She noted that four of the six jurors empaneled said during the jury selection process that a plaintiff would have to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – the criminal trial standard – in order for them to agree to award a “substantial” sum of damages. Rejecting the argument, the Supreme Court observed that the jury found that Flint wasn’t negligent. As a result, the Court said the jury never even got to the question of whether Spencer might be entitled to the $17,000 in medical costs.
“The relevant test for determining whether a juror is biased is whether the juror had such a fixed opinion that he or she could not judge impartially the guilt of the defendant,” the Court said, citing its 1996 decision in State v. Miller. “Even though a juror swears that he or she could set aside any opinion he or she might hold and decide the case on the evidence, a juror’s protestation of impartiality should not be credited if the other facts in the record indicate to the contrary.”
Here, the Court said it was Spencer’s own lawyer who helped confuse the jury by asking them whether they would need to find that the defendant was liable “beyond a reasonable doubt” to award substantial damages in the case. Moreover, it found that any confusion that took place never came to bear on the outcome of the trial because the jury never got to the question of whether Spencer was entitled to substantial damages.
As a result, the Court left the jury verdict in place.
If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, the West Virginia car crash lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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