Criminal vs. Civil Cases: What's the Difference?

Criminal vs. Civil Cases: What's the Difference?

Michelle Patrick
Michelle Patrick
 | 
We all watch television shows, or hear stories on the news, about people or corporations being “sued.” Many people believe that suing someone is always necessary and involves going to court and having a judge or jury decide who wins. While this is true in some cases, the majority of cases do not actually end up in court, most cases settle out of court.

Most people also don’t realize that cases fall into two categories, civil and criminal, and that those categories are extremely different. The cases are brought by different parties, they are governed by different rules and laws, and the remedies are extremely different. 

Civil Cases

A civil case is one that is brought by one party (plaintiff) against another party (defendant). In a civil case, the plaintiff asserts that he/she/it was injured by something that the defendant did. The plaintiff is the person, or party, who has the burden of proof, meaning that the plaintiff must prove that the defendant committed the alleged wrong and that there was some type of injury or damage to the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s property. 

Examples of civil cases include:
  • personal injury - car accidents, slip and falls, medical malpractice, wrongful death
  • property damage 
  • employment - discrimination, wage disputes, hostile work environment, retaliation
  • breach of contract
  • landlord-tenant disputes  
  • defamation - libel and slander
  • sexual assault
  • divorce

In a successful civil case, the defendant will be required to pay damages to compensate the plaintiff for injuries. In a car accident case, for example, where the plaintiff suffered injuries, the defendant could be liable to pay for the plaintiff’s:
  • medical costs - doctor’s visits, hospital visits, prescriptions, surgeries, rehabilitation, assistive medical devices 
  • lost wages - if the injury is severe and the plaintiff has to miss time from work, defendant may have to pay for that time.
  • pain and suffering
  • punitive damages - only available if the defendant’s conduct was egregious. Punitive damages are only available in certain cases and vary depending on what state you are located in. 

Criminal Cases

Criminal cases arise when an articulated law is violated, even though sometimes the immediate victim of the crime is an individual. Unlike civil cases where the plaintiff is an individual, or a corporation, criminal cases are brought on behalf of either the state or federal government (prosecutor). 

Federal crimes are those that deal with federal issues, like federal tax fraud, mail fraud, Medicaid fraud, and counterfeiting. The majority of crimes are state crimes and each state has its own set of laws outlining what is criminal and what the penalties are for violating those laws. 

Examples of criminal cases include:
  • murder
  • manslaughter 
  • theft
  • drunk driving
  • assault or battery
  • kidnapping
  • fraud
  • robbery
  • rape

Penalties in criminal law are intended to punish the individual for violating an established law and usually involve some amount of jail time and/or a fine. 

Can You Bring Both a Civil and Criminal Claim?

While the majority of cases will fall solely into the civil or criminal arena, there are some instances where both a civil and criminal claim can be brought. However, as explained above, they will be brought by different parties for different purposes and will result in different damages. 

A recent example of both criminal and civil cases being brought involves former comedian/actor Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby was criminally charged by a Pennsylvania prosecutor for aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, a former Temple employee. The punishment for aggravated assault in Pennsylvania is 5 to 10 years in state prison and a fine of $25,000. 

The first criminal case against Cosby resulted in a mistrial; the jury was unable to reach a decision. He was retried, convicted and sentenced to jail time plus the $25,000 fine. His conviction has since been overturned and he was released from jail after serving almost 3 years. 

Cosby was also sued civilly for sexual battery and defamation by Andrea Constand, the first of his accusers to come forward. That case settled for almost $3.4 million with the settlement monies going directly to Constand. Since Constand’s first accusations, a number of women have sued Mr. Cosby civilly alleging similar crimes, sexual assault and defamation. At the time of the writing of this article, a number of those cases had settled and 1 civil case is still pending. 

The nature of a case is the deciding factor in what type of case can be pursued. Even where crimes can be brought both criminally and civilly, an individual really will only decide if they wish to pursue a civil case in addition to the criminal case brought by the government.  

This article is intended to convey generally useful information only and does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the author, not LawChamps. 

 
Michelle Patrick

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