In these pages, our Panama City civil injury law firm has often referred to the split between the civil and criminal systems. The criminal system focuses on punishing offenders, and the cases are brought by government authorities. Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, are brought by private parties seeking compensation for a wrong done by the defendant. Sometimes the criminal system's rules make it all but impossible for the criminal system to provide a sense of justice. This can stem from the tough evidentiary standard (think of the OJ Simpson criminal murder case versus the civil wrongful death suit) or jurisdictional issues. In some of these cases, the civil system can provide justice where the criminal courts are unable to do so.
Last week, Deputy Chad Biernacki, a 30-year-old with the Walton County Sheriff's Office, had been issuing notices to appear to underage drinkers in the area west of Pompano Joes. As detailed in the Northwest Florida Daily News, at about 6:30 P.M., he started to leave in his pickup truck. According to the Florida Highway Patrol ("FHP"), Biernacki drove only about 10 feet when his passenger-side front tire rolled over Jessica Nystrom, a 21-year-old from Destin. The truck rolled over the right half of Nystrom's body as she was lying on the beach and sunbathing. She was transported to Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast with serious injuries and was released the next day.
The FHP reports that alcohol was not a factor for either party. Witnesses and physical evidence show that Deputy Biernacki was not driving recklessly at the time of the incident. The FHP report ultimately concludes that the crash resulted from the deputy's failure to see Nystrom or failure to ensure that he had a clear path before driving forward.
While the FHP investigated the incident and found Biernacki at fault, Sheriff's Office Major A.J. Smith reports that the FHP does not have jurisdiction on the beach. FHP troopers are only authorized to write citations for violations on designated roads and highways. Since the beach does not allow regular vehicular traffic, it is not a designated roadway and the FHP cannot issue traffic charges. A consultation with the state attorney's office resulted in the decision that Biernacki was not criminally liable.
The results of the FHP investigation will be considered when the Sheriff's Office convenes its accident review board. The administrative board will review the case and decide whether disciplinary action is appropriate. Major Smith suggested that discipline is appropriate since Biernacki should have used more care.
A civil personal injury lawsuit would be complicated in this specific case because it involves not only an employment situation, but also a government representative. However, this case still serves as an example of a situation where criminal charges are hampered by procedure and other rules. In this circumstance, even more than in other situations, the civil case can help the victim feel that justice has been served. Remember that a civil claim may exist and can be successful, even if a criminal claim is not brought, either because it is somehow barred or because the prosecutor elects not to file. Similarly, given the different evidentiary standards, a civil claim may be successful even when a criminal claim results in a "not guilty" ruling.
If you have suffered an injury due to someone else's negligence or lost a loved one under similar circumstances, please call our Panama City injury law firm. We work within the civil system to help you obtain monetary damages, and we can help you seek justice, even when the criminal system failed to provide it.