Imagine a car speeding down the highway, the driver swerving in and out of lanes. Eventually, the car slams into another vehicle. The accident causes serious injuries to the second car’s driver. Depending on the circumstances, the driver who caused the accident could be charged with reckless driving, DUI, or another criminal offense, with the injured party also being free to sue for monetary compensation.
Types of Wrongs
Crimes and torts (“wrongs” or wrongful acts handled in civil court) are in some sense similar. Both involve someone (the defendant) doing something that’s bad in the eyes of the law. But not every criminal act can be the basis of a civil lawsuit, and certainly not every violation of civil law is a crime.
One of the differences between criminal and civil law has to do with the defendant’s state of mind. Convictions for most crimes require proof that the accused person committed the offense intentionally or recklessly. Someone can frequently be liable in civil court, on the other hand, with a less culpable state of mind. For instance, by itself, accidentally backing your car into someone else’s vehicle—a negligent act—isn’t a crime. But that act could be the basis for the car owner to sue you in civil court.
Burdens of Proof
Again a single act, like assault, can land someone in both civil and criminal court. But the standard of proof in these courts is different.
In criminal court, the federal or state government brings charges against the accused person and must prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt (unless the case gets dismissed or the defendant pleads to the charge(s)). If the case goes to trial, the jurors (or judge if it’s a “bench trial”) must be firmly convinced that the charges are true in order to convict the defendant. At least in part because incarceration is a potential penalty in many criminal cases, certainty is crucial.
In civil court, the injured party brings a legal action directly against the person accused of wrongdoing, through a lawsuit. Generally, the party suing—the plaintiff— must prove the case by a preponderance of the evidence, which generally means proving that the defendant is more likely than not liable. This is a significantly lower standard of proof than the prosecution must reach in criminal case. The lower stakes in civil trials—jail or prison time and a criminal record are not on the table—justify this lower standard. The primary consequence of being found civilly liable for an act usually is having to pay the plaintiff to make up for the wrong.
Here’s a critical point: It’s possible to be acquitted of criminal charges and held civilly liable for the same incident. A well-known example involves O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges but found civilly liable in a later wrongful death suit.
Go to the main crime definitions FAQ page.