Legal 02 – Legal Entities and the Judicial System


Within chapter two, we will look at legal
entities and delve deeper into the judicial system within the United States. Once completed with this module, you should
be able to identify and describe the various types of legal entities recognized in law,
identify the basic components of our court system, describe the role of jurisdiction
in the court system, describe the federal court system, describe state court systems,
explain how a lawsuit progresses through the civil court system, explain how a criminal
defendant proceeds through the criminal court system, and describe the mechanisms of alternative
dispute resolution. To help develop your understanding of our
court systems, we begin this chapter with a scenario in which you are called to participate
in a deposition related to the care you provided to an EMS patient. If you have never participated in the civil
legal process before, you may be wondering just what is a deposition? Maybe you have participated in mediation or
arbitration in the past as a member of your union’s collective bargaining team, but how
is the process different in a lawsuit? Do you need to be represented by an attorney
or your union at the deposition? In this particular scenario, neither you nor
your agency is a party to the lawsuit. Does that mean you or your agency does not
need to worry about “losing” the lawsuit? The answers to these and other questions should
present themselves as we work through the material within this chapter. As a brief introduction to this chapter, our
judicial system within the United States was built to ensure due process, predictability,
efficiency, and justice. While some may argue how efficient or just
the system actually is, these elements still remain guiding principals for our judiciary. For those unfamiliar with our system of courts,
it is not uncommon to wonder how the judicial system determines which specific courts hear
which cases, whether a plaintiff should file a lawsuit in a state versus federal court,
what the process is for filing a lawsuit or prosecuting a criminal case, or even which
rules are followed by the courts? While we are not going to delve too deeply
into all of these topics, the information provided within this chapter should give you
at least a cursory understanding of these and other factors related to our judicial
system. Before we can dive right into evaluating our
system of courts within the United States, it is of crucial importance to understand
who the courts are designed to serve. Most people commonly understand that individuals
are routinely processed through the court system, but there can be confusion as soon
as we start discussing other legally-recognized entities that are not actual human beings. Essentially, our laws within the United States
recognize that there are times and instances where a group of individuals decide to associate
with each other for a shared purpose. When this happens, those people may find it
beneficial to create what is known as a legal entity that serves as the embodiment of their
group. Some common examples of these legal entities
include corporations, partnerships, municipalities, and associations. When formed in compliance with governing laws,
these legal entities become an individual unto themselves with the same rights, privileges,
responsibilities, and potential liabilities as private citizens. The law then commonly treats these legal entities
as an autonomous person, meaning they can own property, enter into contracts, pay taxes,
be a party to a lawsuit, and so on. Not only is this concept of legal entities
important to the daily functioning of business, industry, and government, but it is an important
concept for those of us in emergency services as fire departments and EMS agencies are also
considered to be legal entities. To evaluate these various legal entities,
we will begin by discussing subdivisions of government. As already mentioned briefly in chapter one
of the textbook, there are numerous levels of government within the United States and
these numerous entities, whether it be the federal government itself; your state or commonwealth;
or a village, town, or city, are all considered to be legal entities. These subdivisions of government are governed
by federal and state laws which may define a finite and specific scope for the entity,
provide significant latitude in permissible business activities, or impose specific requirements
that do not apply to other legal entities. An example may be a special taxing district,
such as a school district or a fire protection district, that is limited in its scope and
power by state law, as opposed to the state itself, which has pretty broad authority that
is limited predominantly by the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the specific
state. Aside from legal governmental entities, there
are also business entities that are formed with the primary purpose of supporting business
and industry. These types of legal entities are defined
by state laws and can be diverse, depending on the state. Common legal business entities include sole
proprietorships, corporations, cooperatives, partnerships, limited liability companies,
limited liability partnerships, and limited partnerships. There may also be other entities defined by
the laws of a specific state. Companies, such as Ford, Apple, Dell, Disney,
and so on, are all corporate business entities that are considered to be autonomous “people”
under the law. That means these corporate entities have rights,
duties, privileges, and potential liabilities under the law. In some scenarios, it may even be possible
to levy criminal charges against a company or its officers. A somewhat recent example would be the Volkswagen
case related to the intentional conspiracy to cheat United States emission tests. While it is obviously not possible to put
a corporate entity in jail, it is possible for the levying of criminal fines against
a legal entity. In this particular case (as reported by the
United States Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs in January of 2017), Volkswagen
pled guilty and paid a $2.8 billion criminal fine (in addition to a $1.5 billion civil
settlement for environmental, customs, and financial violations). The formation of legal business entities is
very common and important to the functioning of our society as these entities commonly
provide some type of legal protection to those people involved in the formation and operation
of the business entity. If a corporation goes bankrupt, for example,
that does not mean the creditors can simply go after the company’s officers, board of
directors, or investors for payment. Again, the company itself is a separate, private
entity that exists outside of those who started or operate the company. It is important to keep in mind, however,
that the level of protection available to those involved with the business entity can
vary significantly depending on the type of legal business entity formed. Another distinction that can be made between
legal entities are whether the are for profit or nonprofit entities. A for profit business entity exists to make
money for shareholders, partners, members, and other stakeholders. A nonprofit entity, on the other hand, does
not have shareholders and does not pay dividends on profits. Nonprofit entities are not driven by a financial
profit motive. Just because an entity is nonprofit, does
not mean it is a charitable organization. Healthcare organizations, for example, are
commonly non-charitable nonprofits. It is not unusual for such entities to work
with a separate charitable nonprofit entity for fundraising, however. Essentially, charitable nonprofit organizations
commonly focus on philanthropic goals and social well-being, which routinely involves
the fields of education, religion, acts of charity, public interest, or other common
good. Another type of legal entity important to
fire and emergency services that must be explored is that of an association. Associations are legal entities that allow
individuals to function as a single unit to accomplish a shared purpose. Examples include trade unions, environmental
groups, neighborhood organizations, and professional associations. While associations are typically very easy
to form and maintain, association members are not protected from liability for the actions
of the association as they would be in a corporation. If one member of an association enters into
a debt on behalf of the association, the other individual association members are just as
liable for that debt as the person who initially assumed it on behalf of the association, even
if that person did not have the permission of the others to enter into that debt. Unincorporated associations are also commonly
limited in their ability to start legal actions, borrow money, enter into contracts, or hold
property. Given these limitations, associations are
still somewhat popular in specific cases because they are easy and inexpensive to form, they
do not need to follow the restrictive rules imposed by the law on other business entities,
and dissolution of an association is typically pretty easy. Given this introduction to legal entities,
we can now focus on fire departments and EMS agencies specifically. The formation of fire departments and EMS
agencies is commonly defined by state law, meaning the roles, rights, duties, privileges,
and responsibilities can vary considerably. (The federal government also creates fire
departments based upon provisions that can be different from those in various state laws.) Depending on how the fire department or EMS
agency is created and who operates the department or agency, the fire department or EMS agency
could be considered a state actor (a governmental entity), which means its actions are considered
state (governmental) actions that will be judged with constitutional scrutiny if a dispute
arises. This is especially important within the employment
relationship as governmental employers must comply with very specific Constitutional due
process protections that do not typically apply to private employers. Given this and other factors, it is vital
for fire department and EMS agency leaders to be familiar with the nature of their department
or service and the status of that department or service under applicable laws. The first clarification or differentiation
to be made regarding the status of an emergency services agency is whether or not the entity
is a governmental entity or a nongovernmental (private) entity. A nongovernmental or private fire department
or EMS agency is one that was created under state laws as a business entity (most often
a corporation). A governmental fire department or EMS agency
is routinely established through some other state law regarding the governance of local
municipalities or under a special law that addresses fire departments or EMS agencies
specifically. As each state is different, the laws can vary
considerably and some states even allow for the creation of nonprofit corporations that
function as fire departments or EMS agencies with governmental funding or authority. If created as a private entity, the fire department
or EMS agency may still remain a vital component of essential services within its respective
response territory or area. In other cases, such an entity may be supplemental
to other governmental-based services. Again, there are numerous models for providing
fire protection and EMS services across the United States. This textbook does not even begin to explore
all of the potential variations that can exist. It is not unusual for private emergency service
entities to contract with a municipality or other governmental entity to provide services,
although it is also possible in some areas for them to function independently. These private entities may be either for profit
or nonprofit. Unless created under a specific state law
that addresses it, private legal entities, even if providing emergency services, are
not eligible for governmental immunity, nor do they fall under civil liability limits
that commonly apply to governmental agencies and entities. Another important difference between private
and governmental entities is the applicability of OSHA laws. All private entities are covered under federal
OSHA. Governmental entities may or may not be covered
by federal OSHA, depending on the state. (We will discuss OSHA in greater depth in
another chapter.) As mentioned briefly before, employees of
private entities do not enjoy the same Constitutional protections related to their jobs as employees
with governmental entities. Some fire departments are not created as entities
unto themselves, but they exist under or within another legal entity, such as a corporation
or other business. Such fire departments are commonly referred
to as industrial fire departments as they are formed specifically for responding to
emergencies that occur at the industry’s site or sites. These fire departments are staffed by firefighters
and EMS personnel whose only job is to function as firefighters or emergency responders. The ongoing training received by the fire
department employees is typically governed by the types of hazards that exist at that
the locations for which they provide protective services. Many of these industrial fire departments
are able to mitigate most of their emergencies without external assistance, although that
can vary depending on the region, employer, industry, and circumstances. This is in contrast to what are commonly known
as fire brigades. As opposed to being full-time firefighters,
the members of a fire brigade perform other primary job duties unrelated to emergency
services the majority of the time. If an emergency does occur, however, then
these members leave their primary job function to perform firefighting or other duties, which
may include first aid. Fire brigades commonly serve as a proverbial
“band aid” until a local fire department or EMS agency can respond to assist with the
mitigation of the emergency, although the need for such external assistance may fluctuate
based upon the size of the incident and the nature of the fire brigade. Many private businesses and employers (which
could also include governmental employers) have developed their own internal emergency
response teams to respond to emergencies that occur on their property. The training received by such teams can vary,
but it is not unusual for them to receive some type of first aid and fire extinguisher
training. As with fire brigades, the employees on these
teams have other primary roles and duties they perform on a regular basis and assume
an emergency response role only when needed. These teams must typically rely on other external
emergency response entities to fully mitigate whatever emergency prompted the activation
of the team. Obviously, there can be many different models
of industrial fire departments, fire brigades, and emergency response teams employed across
the country. The textbook gives just a quick overview of
some of the most common traits associated with these different entities, although there
is no “one size fits all” definition for any of these entities. As always, it is incumbent upon fire service
and EMS agency leaders to be familiar with the specific laws that govern these entities
within their state. Some areas of the country are also serviced
by subscription or fee-for-service emergency response entities. Fee-for-service fire departments and EMS agencies
are one method of providing protective services without relying on tax-based funding. In such a model, EMS agencies bill their patients
for services and fire departments bill impacted parties for emergency responses. In a purely fee-for-service system, no tax
dollars are required to maintain services. It is also not unusual for some emergency
response agencies, EMS in particular, to supplement tax-based funding with a fee-for-service model. Subscription agencies require customers to
pay a periodic subscription fee to benefit from fire protection services provided by
the agency. In such a system, if someone did not pay his
or her subscription fee, the fire department may elect to not provide assistance to that
individual given an emergency. There is also an emerging trend in some areas
of the country where aeromedical transport services provide a subscription service that
is almost akin to insurance to cover the cost of aeromedical transport services (or, at
least, significantly reduce the fee-for-service cost) if the subscriber would someday require
the services of that agency. As governmental agencies continue to see budgets
shrink and essential services are squeezed to do more with less, other creative financing
models may continue to emerge and be employed in different proportions within various areas. The duty such emergency response agencies
have to provide services to those in need can vary considerably depending on the laws
in the state and how the emergency service entity was initially formed under those laws. Now that we have some understanding as to
the types of legal entities served by the judicial system and how fire and EMS routinely
fit into various legal entity categories, we can continue our exploration of the court
systems within the United States. We stated in chapter one that the United States
is a country of laws. This means that, when individuals or entities
have disagreements or disputes, it is no longer acceptable to have a proverbial showdown at
high noon. Rather, the aggrieved party has the ability
to take the other party to court by filing a lawsuit. It is the job of the court system within the
United States to adjudicate these disputes when they arise between legal entities (whether
that be a person, a corporation, a fire department, the government, or another entity recognized
under the law). Ultimately, if there is a legal problem or
complication in some facet of our lives, whether it be criminal or civil in nature, the dispute
may very well end up in a court. Therefore, an understanding of the court system
is important for fire and EMS leaders who need to navigate this legal landscape. There are numerous different courts at different
levels with the United States and different jurisdictions demand their own types of court. The first type of jurisdiction that determines
the court to hear a case is geographical jurisdiction. This type of jurisdiction is defined or limited
by physical boundaries, such as city limits (for municipal courts) or the dividing lines
between states (given state-based court systems). The second type of jurisdiction relates to
the subject matter related to the case at hand. This type of jurisdiction is restricted by
different areas of law. One such example is bankruptcy, which must
be heard by a federal bankruptcy court. Another may be the difference between a federal
court or a state court given an alleged criminal violation of either federal law or state law,
respectively. For the time being, let’s focus specifically
on the federal court structure. While it is easy to think about our federal
court system as a large and broadly-encompassing system, the only court at the federal level
established by name in the Constitution is the United States Supreme Court. All other “inferior” courts are created by
Congress and must comply with any legal precedent established by the Supreme Court. The first or most basic “level” of courts
within the federal system are the federal district courts. These are the trial courts for entry into
the federal judicial system where lawsuits and complaints are initially filed. There are 94 district courts within the United
States at the time this presentation was produced. In addition to these district courts, there
are courts established at the federal level for handing bankruptcies, claims against the
United States, and international trade. If there is a dispute as to the correct application
of law by a trial court, the next stop in the federal court system is an appellate court. These circuit courts hear cases that originate
in the trial courts with the purpose of ensuring the district courts within the circuit are
interpreting the law correctly. There are 13 circuit courts within the federal
system. While not as prevalent for those within the
fire and EMS professions, the federal judicial system also recognizes the authority of some
adjudicating bodies that are technically outside of the judicial system or separate unto themselves,
such as military courts, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and administrative agencies with
adjudicative authority. This map is produced by the Office of the
United States Courts and denotes the geographic boundaries of the federal circuit courts. If you recall, we previously learned that
there are 13 circuits, yet this map only displays 11. That is because the 12th Circuit is not actually
numbered. It is the United States Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia Circuit. The 13th Circuit is also not numbered. It is United States Court of Appeals for the
Federal Circuit, which is unique in that its jurisdiction is defined solely by subject
matter as opposed to geographical boundaries. This court has exclusive jurisdiction over
appeals from certain courts and boards, such as the United States Court of International
Trade, United States Court of Federal Claims, and the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals,
to name a few. Federal courts are considered courts of limited
jurisdiction as they may only hear specific types of cases. There are also restraints on what the courts
can do. First, federal courts are not empowered to
provide advisory opinions. This means an entity cannot ask a court, preemptively,
how it would rule if presented with a specific factual scenario. For a federal court to issue an opinion, there
must be an actual legal dispute. A “case or controversy,” as it is called,
is required. As part of this case or controversy requirement,
the plaintiff in the case must have standing to initiate the lawsuit. He, she, or the entity must have been legally
harmed by the defendant in some way. While there are a few exceptions, a third
party typically cannot bring or initiate a lawsuit on behalf of someone else. Whatever the case or controversy is, it must
one that can be remedied by the court and the dispute must be ripe, which means the
lawsuit presents a current, ongoing problem for the court to solve. If the harm has not occurred yet, then there
is no case or controversy and the case is not ripe. If the case has resolved itself, so to speak,
then the issue is considered moot and there is no case or controversy to be heard by the
court. With these requirements in mind, federal courts
may hear only two types of cases. The first is if the case involves a federal
question (which typically means there is a dispute related to a federal law or regulation). The second is if there is a dispute between
citizens of different states and the damages in dispute exceed $75,000. If neither of these two scenarios exist, then
the case at hand probably falls squarely within the jurisdiction of a state court system. State court systems are designed to address
legal disputes that arise within the geographical boundaries of the state. While the federal courts are considered to
be courts of limited jurisdiction, the state courts have very broad subject matter jurisdiction
and typically hear cases involving a wide assortment of legal topics, such as divorces,
child custody, criminal cases, probate, civil claims, and so on. These courts are governed by the state’s Constitution
and the laws of that state. At the top of each state court system is a
court of last resort, similar to the United States Supreme Court within the federal system. This court is the “highest” court in the state
and all other courts within the state are considered inferior to this court of last
resort. While many states refer to their highest court
as the state’s Supreme Court, that is not the case in every state. New York, for example, refers to its highest
court as the Court of Appeals. Like the federal system, each state has a
system of entry-level trial courts with some type of hierarchy to allow for at least one
level of appeal. There may also be courts that are established
by state law but exist outside of the state court system itself, such as municipal courts
or traffic courts. State court systems typically also have special
courts to address specific legal matters, such as guardianship cases, probate, or crimes
involving minors. These various courts and systems can vary
considerably from state-to-state, as does the method by which judges are selected within
the state. Some positions are appointed, some are elected,
and the terms vary as well. If you are interested in the court system
within a specific state, it is recommended that you visit the state government’s website
to research details as to how the state’s court system was designed and currently functions. Now that we have some familiarity with the
structure of our federal and state court systems, we can delve deeper into the legal process
itself. Specifically, we will begin by looking at
the stages of a civil lawsuit. As already mentioned, if a party or person
is wronged by another, the solution is to seek redress through the courts. While the litigation process itself can be
somewhat complicated, the steps are defined within rules of civil procedure, either at
the federal or state level. Generally speaking, there are four main stages
to a civil lawsuit. The first step consists of pleadings and motions,
the second is discovery, the third is the trial and judgment, and the last step is an
appeal (if warranted). As we proceed through these stages, you may
want to refer to the flowchart provided on page 34 within the textbook. The first stage of a lawsuit encompasses pleadings
and motions. The first step is for the plaintiff (the person
or entity seeking redress from another party) to file a complaint with the court and serve
a copy of that complaint to the defendant in the case (the person or entities being
sued). Given the dispute in question, it is important
for the plaintiff to ensure the complaint is filed with the correct court, whether that
be a state court, a federal court, or a court with special jurisdiction over the particular
subject matter of the case. Additionally, some systems require the defendant
to be served with a summons and complaint before the complaint can be filed with the
court. Given the idiosyncrasies of individual court
systems and subject matter jurisdiction questions, it is in the plaintiff’s best interests to
work with an attorney to ensure all procedural steps are followed. Upon receipt of the complaint, the defendant
has a specific time period in which to respond. In so doing, the defendant has several options. The defendant may file a counterclaim, essentially
suing the plaintiff for damages suffered by the defendant. The defendant could file an impleader action
to include third parties in the lawsuit. The simplest response to the complaint, if
you will, is for the defendant to file a responsive pleading that addresses the issues raised
in the complaint and provides the facts of the case as alleged or maintained by the defendant. Depending on the scenario and the jurisdiction,
the defendant may have additional options as well. If the defendant fails to respond by the deadline,
however, the court will award default judgment to the plaintiff. Assuming the defendant does file a responsive
pleading, there are additional motions (legal requests) that may be made of the court. If the defendant does not believe the plaintiff
has enough evidence to substantiate the claim, the defendant may ask the court to dismiss
the lawsuit. If there is no dispute as to the material
facts of the case, the defendant may ask the court for summary judgment, meaning the court
decides the case based upon the applicable law. Depending upon the content of the responsive
pleading, the plaintiff may also make somewhat similar motions as well. If there are disputes between the parties
as to the facts of the case, however, the lawsuit enters the next stage, discovery. The discovery stage is the one in which parties
compile and share evidence pertinent to the case. The goal is for each side to have access to
the same information. Rules of civil procedure routinely prohibit
parties from concealing evidence from each other. The reason is that it is better for the legal
system to ensure the parties have access to all the facts to ensure they are making a
prudent decision as to whether or not a trial is warranted. If the plaintiff, for instance, has some overwhelming
and persuasive evidence, the defendant may be more apt to try and settle the lawsuit
before additional time and energy is expended by either party and the court. Having access to the evidence provides efficiencies
in the system. As far as the discovery process is concerned,
there are numerous mechanisms available for the parties to obtain evidence. One mechanism is a request for production
that asks a party to produce documents or other tangible evidence related to the case. It is also possible to use a subpoena to request
physical evidence from entities that are not a party to the lawsuit if such evidence has
probative value for the case. Electronic records, including emails and other
media, are often the subject of these requests. In complex cases, the amount of evidence available
and produced can be immense, which increases the amount of time associated with the discovery
process, along with the associated cost. Requests for admissions can be used to ask
a part to admit or deny certain facts associated with the lawsuit through the use of specific,
carefully worded questions. Interrogatories are somewhat similar, although
the questions are broader and typically open-ended. If there were witnesses to the event that
gave rise to the lawsuit, it is somewhat routine for depositions to be used to obtain the sworn
testimony of those witnesses. Depositions are also used routinely to obtain
the testimony of expert witnesses. In the case of a medical malpractice lawsuit
against an EMS agency, for example, the plaintiff may conduct a deposition of a physician considered
to be an expert on the subject related to the lawsuit to allege some type of error on
the part of the EMS agency to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, thus establishing
the EMS agency’s liability for the damages suffered by the plaintiff. The defendant EMS agency may, on the other
hand, conduct their own depositions with different expert witness physicians who find no fault
with the EMS agency’s actions. Needless to say, especially where expert witnesses
are concerned, such depositions can add significantly to the cost of litigation as expert witnesses
are commonly reimbursed for their time and the hourly billing rates and other associated
expenses of the attorneys, court reporter, videographer (if there is one), and others
must be factored in as well. All of these discovery mechanisms add time
and cost to the legal process, which is why it is very common for the parties to settle
without going to trial. If, at the end of all discovery, the respective
parties cannot reach a settlement, the next stage of the lawsuit is to participate in
a trial. Trials are expensive and they can be risky
as well in that there is no guarantee the jury or court will find for any particular
party, regardless of how strong a case the respective parties believe they have. Given the use of different motions available
through the discovery phase, it can be possible for a case to be settled by the court without
the parties themselves actually reaching a settlement. If such motions are unsuccessful and the parties
still refuse to settle, then a trial is held to resolve the dispute. Once the court renders its final decision
after the trial, the doctrine of res judicata prevents the plaintiff from filing another
lawsuit against the same defendant for the same matter. The final decision by the court closes the
matter for good unless there is an appeal, which will be discussed in a little bit as
the fourth potential stage of a lawsuit. Before we can talk about appeals, however,
it is important to understand the difference between the roles of a jury versus that of
a judge at trial. It is the responsibility of the jury to be
the finder of fact. As the evidence is presented, the jury must
use that evidence to decide what actually happened in the case and who is responsible
as a result. The judge is responsible for ensuring the
rule of law is followed during the trial. The judge also instructs the jury as to how
the law is applied to the case at hand. It is not the judge’s role to decide the facts
of the case, however. That, again, is the jury’s responsibility. With that being said, there are two different
kinds of trials that can occur in a civil case. The first is a jury trial in which a jury
of citizens is responsible for differentiating fact from fiction. In some cases, however, the case is heard
in what is known as a bench trial in which the judge must not only apply the law to the
facts of the case, but must also take the place of the jury to determine just what those
facts are. Again, the different roles of a judge and
jury at trial are important to understand when evaluating whether or not a case can
be appealed. Another important facet of civil procedure
to understand is the burden of proof in a civil case. Essentially the burden of proof standard establishes
who has to prove what and to what degree in order to be successful in the civil case. Within a civil case the burden of proof is
typically considered to be “by preponderance of the evidence.” This means that the weight of evidence just
tips the proverbial scales to one side or the other. The probability of the allegation being true
is greater than 50 percent, it is more likely than not. That is the extent of the application of the
preponderance of the evidence standard. This burden of proof also applies initially
to the plaintiff in the case. It is the responsibility of the plaintiff
to meet this burden of proof. If the defendant does not feel the plaintiff
has met this burden (and the court agrees), the defendant need not even present evidence
to be successful. If the plaintiff makes a somewhat persuasive
argument, however, the defendant may feel compelled to shoulder the burden of then dispelling
the plaintiff’s allegation and evidence by the same preponderance of the evidence standard. In this fashion, the burden may actually move
back and forth between the parties as each tries to “sell” their evidence while undermining
the value and credibility of the other party’s evidence. Keep in mind as well that this burden of proof
is not established by volume. Stated another way, the quantity of evidence
provided is not as important as the quality of evidence provided. The plaintiff may have a dozen people testify
on its behalf, but if the defendant has just one witness who the jury believes is more
credible, that is enough to tip the scales in favor of the defendant. As far as the burden of proof is concerned,
while the plaintiff typically shoulders the burden of proof, there are cases where the
burden of proof may actually fall upon the defendant. One such case is if the defendant is trying
to make an affirmative defense. An example may be a trespassing case where
the defendant tries to use the defense of necessity to alleviate liability. The burden of proof for such an affirmative
defense falls on the defendant. As far as fire and EMS are concerned, the
application of a legal presumption is also important in evaluating the burden of proof. Such a case may be an EMS crew sued for complying
with a legal do-not-resuscitate order where the state law protects EMTs functioning in
good faith and also creates a presumption of that good faith. It could also apply in a worker’s compensation
case for a firefighter with cancer. Many state laws create a presumption that
a firefighter with certain types of cancer after working a given amount of time in the
profession actually contracted the cancer as a part of his or her employment duties,
making the ailment compensable under worker’s compensation laws. Overcoming such presumptions can be difficult
as the burden of proof in such cases is higher than a simple preponderance of the evidence. In discussing burden of proof (along with
the other phases of a lawsuit), we mentioned the word evidence frequently. Court cases are determined not based upon
rainbows, wishes, and happy thoughts, but based upon evidence. Evidence is essentially anything that helps
support a proposition or claim. It is something real and tangible that is
established or can be proven. Documentation, such as a fire incident report
or an EMS patient care report, is evidence. Physical items, like pictures of skid marks
taken at the scene of a motor vehicle collision are evidence. Even witness testimony is evidence as such
testimony lends itself to helping the finder of fact in the case (the jury) determine what
did in fact happen. As far as testimony is concerned, there are
two types: lay witness testimony and expert witness testimony. Expert witnesses are vetted through the court
to provide opinion to a reasonable degree of certainty in the witness’s particular field. A fire investigator, for example, is commonly
qualified as an expert witness to give his or her opinion as to the cause and origin
of the fire. Lay witnesses, on the other hand, can testify
as to what they saw, heard, or otherwise observed through their senses (sight, hearing, smell,
touch, etc.) Unless an opinion is one related to general
lay knowledge or experience (like approximating how fast the witness thought the ambulance
was driving before the accident), lay witnesses are not allowed to testify as to their opinions. In discussing witness testimony, it is also
important to understand the concept of hearsay. Hearsay is defined as an out of court statement,
made by someone other than the witness, presented to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Stated another way, hearsay is when a witness
does not have personal knowledge of a fact and must rely on information provided or statements
made by someone else. That type of evidence is generally not allowed
at trial. If a party wants to know what someone observed,
they must typically ask that person directly at the trial. With that being said, there are exceptions
to the hearsay rule, such as a dying declaration, recorded recollection, statements made for
the purpose of medical diagnosis or treatment, and a few others. This is one of the reasons why proper documentation
is so important for fire department and EMS agency personnel. Without proper documentation, some important
evidence in a subsequent court case may be excluded as hearsay. With this background in mind as to the difference
in roles between a judge and jury, along with the burden of proof, types of evidence available,
and the inadmissibility of hearsay, we now have a frame of reference in which to discuss
the fourth stage of a lawsuit, the appeal. If one party believes there was a mistake
of law made within the process, that party may seek to appeal the trial court’s decision
based upon that alleged incorrect application of law. Notice I used the phrase “mistake of law”
a couple times in that sentence. That is because the losing party cannot appeal
simply because it did not agree with the jury’s decision. The jury is the finder of fact and, if the
jury decides the facts one way or the other, that decision is final and cannot be appealed. Again, the appeal must be based upon an alleged
mistake of law that was made by the judge in the case. Interestingly enough, it is often necessary
for the party alleging the incorrect application of law to actually object to the court at
the time the alleged mistake was made to preserve the right to appeal that decision later. If the party fails to object when the mistake
was made and then tries to appeal the case based upon that mistake, the appeals court
may dismiss the appeal because the appealing party failed to make a timely objection to
the legal error. This is another reason why competent legal
services from an attorney is so important if you ever find yourself a party to a lawsuit. Depending on the issue involved in the appeal,
there could potentially be multiple levels of appeals available. Say, for instance, that the trial court made
an alleged error of law, which was appealed to the court system’s appeals court, which
subsequently supported the decision of the trial court. If the issue is important enough, the state
supreme court (or court of last resort) may decide to hear the case. In extreme circumstances, the United States
Supreme Court may even be an option for a final appeal. Regardless of where the appeals process stops,
there will be a point at which all options are exhausted and the final judgment stands,
concluding the civil litigation process. The other type of court case in which fire
departments and EMS agencies may be involved are those related to the criminal court system. The criminal court system has a very different
set of rules and procedures for moving through the system. The flowchart displayed here (which is also
included on page 39 of the textbook) outlines a common process followed by many criminal
court systems. While we will discuss this particular process,
keep in mind that there are other variations that may be followed in specific jurisdictions. As always, it is important for you to be familiar
with the laws and criminal process within your state and particular jurisdiction. Despite local fluctuations in specifics, the
general spirit of the process we are about to discuss is common across most criminal
court systems. The process begins with someone being arrested,
booked, and either detained or released based upon bail practices in the jurisdiction and
the specific type of crime involved. There is a process of filing formal charges
or information, followed by the defendant’s arraignment. If a plea bargain is not reached at any point
throughout these initial steps, the case goes to trial. If the criminal defendant is found guilty,
then there is a sentencing process, which may be followed by an appeal. Let’s look at these steps individually. To begin, an individual enters the criminal
justice system by being arrested by a law enforcement agency. Once at the police department (or other processing
center if arrested by an agency other than a local police department), the accused is
booked into the system, which includes mug shots, fingerprinting, and maybe even DNA
collection in some jurisdictions. Depending on the nature of the crime, the
individual may be released or will remain in jail until a bail hearing to determine
how much money must be paid in bond to secure his or her release while awaiting trial. At some point after the individual’s arrest
and booking, the prosecutor with jurisdiction over the case must decide whether or not the
people want to pursue the case. The prosecutor may decide to not pursue some
cases based on a lack of severity, tenuous evidence, or other considerations. If the case is one the prosecutor wants to
pursue, formal charges are then filed with the court. Depending on the jurisdiction, these charges
may be filed through a criminal complaint or through a document called the “information”
in which the alleged criminal acts of the defendant are detailed. In some cases and jurisdictions, the prosecutor
may seek to utilize a grand jury to first determine if there is enough evidence to pursue
a case before deciding whether or not to file charges. Many people are surprised to hear that grand
juries actually work for the prosecutor in an investigatory role and the defendant is
commonly not involved or represented in the grand jury process. Again, the grand jury helps the prosecutor
decide whether he or she will pursue the case based upon the evidence available. As this is just one more step in the prosecutor’s
internal decision-making process, there is no due process issue with the defendant not
having representation in this process. If the grand jury does indeed believe criminal
charges are warranted in the case, it will issue an indictment. In the absence of a grand jury process, some
jurisdictions, based upon the nature of the crime, may require a preliminary hearing in
front of a criminal law judge to determine if there is enough evidence (based upon probable
cause) to force the defendant to stand trial. Unlike a grand jury process, the criminal
defendant is a participant in the preliminary hearing process and may even present evidence
on his or her behalf. Assuming charges are eventually filed against
the defendant, the next step is the arraignment where the defendant enters his or her plea
of guilty, not guilty, or no contest with the court. If the defendant enters a plea of guilty or
no contest, the process skips down to the sentencing stage. Such pleas are typically the result of a plea
bargain between the prosecutor and the defendant where the prosecutor offers a lower sentence
in exchange for a guilty or no contest plea. Given the volume of cases within the criminal
justice system, plea bargains are common and powerful for alleviating congestion within
the system. The benefit of a plea bargain to the criminal
defendant is the knowledge of a certain outcome. As a matter of fact, there is some research
that suggests even the occasional innocent person takes a plea bargain to bring the process
to a proscribed conclusion and not risk the uncertainty that arises through a criminal
trial. For the truly guilty person, the plea also
gives the criminal defendant an opportunity to control his or her proverbial fate and
potentially receive a much lighter sentence than may be received if the case goes to trial. On the flip side, the people benefit through
the efficiency of a guaranteed conviction. It may be better to have the criminal defendant
in jail for a year based upon a plea than maybe not at all if the trial court eventually
finds him or her not guilty. While the prosecutor has tremendous latitude
in developing plea agreements with criminal defendants, such agreements must ultimately
be approved by the court. If the criminal defendant does not take a
plea bargain (assuming one was even attempted or offered) and enters an arraignment plea
of not guilty, the criminal defendant must then await his or her day in court. During this period of time, discovery can
occur, similar to a civil case. During this time, pre-trial motions may also
be introduced and, if additional evidence is discovered by either side, that may impact
the case as well. Say, for instance, that a witness presents
cell phone video that shows the criminal defendant is innocent of the charges. The prosecutor would then drop the case. On the flip side, maybe the cell phone video
is rather damning for the criminal defendant. That may spur him or her to consider a plea
bargain, if the prosecutor is willing to discuss one, that is. After all of that, if there are no motions
that result in the charges being dismissed, the prosecutor does not drop the charges,
and no plea bargain is reached, the case will go to trial, which is the highest-profile
part of a criminal case. Depending on the particular case, there may
actually be a tremendous amount of notoriety surrounding the criminal trial. With that being said, most criminal cases
do not reach this phase as more than 90 percent of all criminal convictions result from negotiated
plea bargains. As with a civil case, there is a burden of
proof that must be met by the prosecution in the case. The Constitution assures that every criminal
defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Unlike a civil case, a mere tipping of the
proverbial scales of justice, a preponderance of the evidence, is not enough to establish
criminal culpability. Rather, it is the burden of the prosecution
to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction. Because this burden falls upon the prosecution,
there are many cases in which the defendant does not even take the stand on his or her
own behalf. If the defense believes the prosecution failed
to meet that burden, there is nothing the defendant needs to do. Believe it or not, technically speaking, the
burden to prove innocence does not actually exist in light of this burden of proof, even
if the prosecution is able to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold. What I mean by saying that is this: If the
prosecution is successful in meeting it’s burden, the burden of proof then shifts to
the defendant to not prove innocence, but to simply inject a reasonable doubt in the
minds of the jury. Notice the threshold is not the absence of
all doubt in the minds of the jury… The burden is beyond a “reasonable” doubt. Similar to a civil case, if the defendant
is trying to exert an affirmative defense, then the defendant has the burden of proof
associated with substantiating that affirmative defense. Beyond that, however, the burden of proof
in a criminal case falls squarely on the shoulders of the prosecution to prove all elements of
the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a significantly higher threshold than
the preponderance of evidence threshold used in civil cases. Once all evidence is presented, assuming there
were no motions during the trial that would result in a dismissal, the criminal defendant
did not change his or her plea, or a plea bargain was offered and accepted, the court
will reach a final verdict. If the defendant is acquitted, meaning he
or she is found innocent (or not guilty), the Fifth Amendment prohibition against double
jeopardy means the defendant may not be prosecuted for the same crime at a later date, even if
additional evidence is made available later that supports a guilty verdict. On the other hand, if the defendant is found
guilty of some or all of the charges, the next step is for the criminal defendant to
be sentenced. This sentencing is commonly influenced by
laws that delineate the type of punishment associated with various crimes. A Class A felony may provide for life in prison
(or even the death penalty) as opposed to a lesser felony where the timeframe for incarceration
could be relatively minimal. Some laws carry minimum sentencing guidelines,
meaning the court must sentence in accordance with proscribed minimums. Without such guidelines, judges commonly have
latitude in sentencing decisions. If the sentencing results in the death penalty
in the federal system or in states with the death penalty, there is typically another
process or mechanism in place to ensure the defendant’s due process rights are indeed
respected. Ultimately, once the sentencing is completed,
the defendant has the right to appeal the decision if he or she believes there was an
error made in the application of the law. Similar to civil cases, the defendant cannot
appeal the finding of fact. He or she must base an appeal upon an alleged
error of law by the court. Additionally, the error is only appealable
if the defendant objected to the error at the time when it occurred during the trial. As the criminal justice system deals directly
with constitutional guarantees such as due process, equal treatment under the law, and
other fundamental rights, the right to an appeal exists in all cases and, given extraordinary
circumstances, the United States Supreme Court may even decide to hear the case. Given this overview of both the civil and
criminal court systems and their associated processes, there is one last topic that we
need to explore as it relates to civil litigation. There is an emerging trend in the United States
to utilize what is known as alternative dispute resolution to control litigation costs and
speed up the civil litigation process while also reducing the burdens on the civil court
system. The alternative dispute resolution mechanisms
of mediation and arbitration are commonly employed within contracts between parties
to resolve disputes outside of a formal lawsuit and civil court proceeding. Mediation is a process by which a mediator
works as an intermediary between the parties to work out a settlement or agreement. Arbitration is a little different in that
the arbitrator typically has the ability to decide a dispute and enforce judgment. Depending on the nature of the arbitration
process, there may be single arbitrator or, more commonly, a panel of three arbitrators
who make the final determination on the case. While I just said the arbitrator typically
has the ability to decide a dispute and enforce judgment, there are different types of arbitration,
including mandatory or voluntary, along with binding or non-binding. Within the realm of the fire and EMS professions,
mediation and arbitration are commonly factors in collective bargaining (contract) disputes. As a result, we will explore these topics
in greater depth within the chapters on contracts (chapter five) and employer-employee relationships
(chapter ten). To summarize this chapter, remember that the
judicial system in the United States is structured to ensure due process, predictability, efficiency,
and justice. We also discussed legal entities, which are
formed when groups of people wish to associate for a shared purpose. Legal entities can include businesses, associations,
levels of government, fire departments, EMS agencies, and so on. If disputes arise between legal entities,
it is the responsibility of the courts to adjudicate those disputes. There are different jurisdictions that necessitate
different types of courts, whether that is based upon the level of government involved,
a specific geographical region, or the subject matter of the dispute. The only court actually established by name
in the Constitution is the United States Supreme Court. Additional federal courts are established
below the Supreme Court by Congress. There are also state court systems designed
to address legal disputes that arise within the borders of those various states. We also explored the different processes between
civil and criminal courts. There are four common stages of a civil lawsuit:
pleadings and motions, discovery, trial and judgment, and an appeal. The stages of a criminal court process include
arrest, booking, bail, formal filing of charges/information, arraignment, trial, sentencing, and appeal. If you found our exploration of the civil
and criminal court systems interesting, there is plenty more of that to come! In the next chapter, we will delve deeper
into crimes that impact the fire service and EMS professions, along with principles of
criminal procedure.

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