ZigaForm version 4.6.9

Civil Law vs. Criminal Law

Crimes punishable by other afflictive penalties shall prescribe in fifteen years. Those punishable by a correctional penalty shall prescribe in ten years; with the exception of those punishable by arresto mayor, which shall prescribe in five years. The crime of libel or other similar offenses shall prescribe in one year.

Civil law and criminal law are two broad and separate entities of law with separate sets of laws and punishments.

According to William Geldart, Introduction to English Law 146 (D.C.M. Yardley ed., 9th ed. 1984),

“The difference between civil law and criminal law turns on the difference between two different objects which law seeks to pursue – redress or punishment. The object of civil law is the redress of wrongs by compelling compensation or restitution: the wrongdoer is not punished; he only suffers so much harm as is necessary to make good the wrong he has done. The person who has suffered gets a definite benefit from the law, or at least he avoids a loss. On the other hand, in the case of crimes, the main object of the law is to punish the wrongdoer; to give him and others a strong inducement not to commit same or similar crimes, to reform him if possible and perhaps to satisfy the public sense that wrongdoing ought to meet with retribution.”

Examples of criminal law include cases of burglary, assault, battery and cases of murder. Examples where civil law applies include cases of negligence or malpractice.

Comparison chart

Civil LawCriminal Law
DefinitionCivil law deals with the disputes between individuals, organizations, or between the two, in which compensation is awarded to the victim.Criminal law is the body of law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses.
PurposeTo deal with the disputes between individuals, organizations, or between the two, in which compensation is awarded to the victim.To maintain the stability of the state and society by punishing offenders and deterring them and others from offending.
Case filed byPrivate partyGovernment
DecisionDefendant can be found liable or not liable, the judge decides this.Defendant is convicted if guilty and acquitted if not guilty, the jury decide this.
Standard of proof“Preponderance of evidence.” Claimant must produce evidence beyond the balance of probabilities.“Beyond a reasonable doubt”:
Burden of proofClaimant must give proof however, the burden may shift to the defendant in situations of Res Ipsa Loquitur (The thing speaks for itself).“Innocent until proven guilty”: The prosecution must prove defendant guilty.
Type of punishmentCompensation (usually financial) for injuries or damages, or an injunction in nuisance.A guilty defendant is subject to Custodial (imprisonment) or Non-custodial punishment (fines or community service). In exceptional cases, the death penalty.
ExamplesLandlord/tenant disputes, divorce proceedings, child custody proceedings, property disputes, personal injury, etc.Theft, assault, robbery, trafficking in controlled substances, murder, etc.
AppealsEither party (claimant or defendant) can appeal a court’s decision.Only the defendant may appeal a court’s verdict. The prosecution is not allowed to appeal.
Commencement of proceedingsState/People/Prosecution by summons or indictmentBy way of pleadings, Representatives of the state, Prosecutor, Attorney General.
Scales of justice


In civil law, a case commences when a complaint is filed by a party, which may be an individual, an organization, a company or a corporation, against another party. The party complaining is called the plaintiff and the party responding is called the defendant and the process is called litigation. In civil litigation, the plaintiff is asking the court to order the defendant to remedy a wrong, often in the form of monetary compensation to the plaintiff. In contrast, in criminal law, the case is filed by the government, usually referred to as the State and represented by a prosecutor, against a defendant. An individual can never file criminal charges against another person: an individual may report a crime, but only the government can file criminal charges in court. Crimes are activities punishable by the government and are divided into two broad classes of seriousness: felonies having a possible sentence of more than one year incarceration and misdemeanors having a possible sentence of one year or less incarceration.


One of the notable differences between civil law and criminal law is the punishment. In case of criminal law a person found guilty is punished by incarceration in a prison, a fine, or in some occasions death penalty. Whereas, in case of civil law the losing party has to reimburse the plaintiff, the amount of loss which is determined by the judge and is called punitive damage. A criminal litigation is more serious than civil litigation, so the criminal defendants have more rights and protections than a civil defendant.

Burdens of proof

In case of criminal law, the burden of proof lies with the government in order to prove that the defendant is guilty. On the other hand, in case of civil law the burden of proof first lies with the plaintiff and then with the defendant to refute the evidence provided by the plaintiffs. In case of civil litigation if the judge or jury believes that more than 50% of the evidence favors the plaintiffs, then plaintiffs win, which is very low as compared to 99% proof for criminal law. In case of criminal law, defendant is not declared guilty unless approximately more than 99% proof is against him.

How the system works

One can say that criminal law deals with looking after public interests. It involves punishing and rehabilitating offenders, and protecting the society. The police and prosecutor are hired by the government to put the criminal law into effect. Public funds are used to pay for these services. If suppose you are the victim of the crime, you report it to the police and then it is their duty to investigate the matter and find the suspect . In most cases, if a charge has been properly presented and if there is evidence supporting it, the Government, not the person who complains of the incident, prosecutes it in the courts. This is called a system of public prosecutions. On the other hand, civil law is about private disputes between individuals or between an individual and an organization or between organizations. Civil law deals with the harm, loss, or injury to one party or the other. A defendant in a civil case is found liable or not liable for damages, while in a criminal case defendant may be found guilty or not.

CALL A LAWYER NOW (800)734-4134 LOG IN ADD YOUR FIRM EnjurisFinding answers after your accident
Find a Lawyer
Accident Resources
Attorney Marketing

Personal Injury Law
Civil vs. Criminal Law: Is It Negligent or Is It Criminal?
Civil vs. Criminal Law: Is It Negligent or Is It Criminal?
civil vs criminal law
The law can be tricky to navigate, even for lawyers and courts. At its core, there are two principles: criminal law and civil law. Know which one applies to your situation and how to handle it.
Written by: Enjuris Editors
A criminal trial is very different from a civil case. If you were injured, you might not know which one would be best for you to get relief — and it might depend on what kind of relief you’re looking for. Learn more about the hallmarks of the criminal vs. civil justice systems and what kinds of cases are included for each.
Jump to section
Differences between civil and criminal law
Actions that are both civil and criminal
Outcome of civil vs. criminal cases
What about double jeopardy?
Finding the right lawyer for your case

If you’ve been wronged in a significant way, your instinct might tell you that it’s worthy of a lawsuit. Maybe it is. It’s important to understand when an action is a crime versus when it’s a civil liability issue, and what you can do about it in either situation.

First, let’s do a quick review of some important legal vocabulary you’ll need to know:

Plaintiff – The plaintiff is the person or entity that files a lawsuit in a civil case. For our purposes, we’ll refer to a plaintiff as a person, but it can be a person, company, non-profit organization, government or public organization (for example, a school district), or anything that has legal status. The plaintiff claims to have suffered harm from the defendant’s actions. That harm could be physical, emotional, or financial.
Defendant – In a civil lawsuit, the defendant is the person or entity that’s being sued. In a criminal proceeding, the defendant is the person charged with a crime.
Civil lawsuit – A civil lawsuit is the entirety of a proceeding from the time the plaintiff files a legal document, called a complaint, against a defendant. The legal process includes all following court motions and settlement negotiations, all the way to trial and judgment (if it goes that far).
Criminal proceeding – A criminal case begins when a person is arrested and charged with a crime, and that person becomes the defendant. There isn’t a “plaintiff” in a criminal case; charges are always brought by the government (federal, state, or local). Even if there’s a victim, that person isn’t a plaintiff — they might be a witness, but the case is filed by a prosecutor, not a private individual.
Enjuris tip:
Read more:

Glossary of basic legal terms
Steps to a lawsuit
Plaintiff vs. defendant — learn the difference
Differences between civil and criminal law
One major difference between civil and criminal law is that a civil lawsuit is always the result of harm to a person or entity. A civil lawsuit is filed when someone was harmed as a result of someone’s negligence or recklessness, but the defendant hasn’t necessarily broken any laws.

For example, if you slipped and fell from a water spill on a supermarket floor, you might be able to file a civil slip and fall lawsuit for your injuries. The store personnel might have been negligent in not keeping the walking area safe, but that doesn’t mean they committed a crime.

Was I the victim of a crime?
It might sound ridiculous that you even have to ask yourself this question — of course you know if you’re the victim of a crime!

But do you really know?

Let’s break down what kinds of actions are covered by criminal law, and which are civil. A criminal act is one that is an offense against the public, society, state, or individual.

A person can be charged with a criminal offense even if no one was harmed simply because the behavior was against the law. In other words, a crime was committed, even if no one got hurt.

Here are some examples of victimless crimes:

Drug use
Public drunkenness
In each of these situations, the perpetrator could be arrested simply for having broken the law, even though no one was actually hurt by their actions.

Civil cases, on the other hand, involve a victim who was harmed in some way by the defendant (physically, emotionally or financially). Civil claims include (but aren’t limited to):

Torts, or any wrongful act that entitles an injured person to compensation. This includes all personal injury cases such as car accidents, slip and fall, wrongful death, property damage, and others.
Breach of contract claims, which is when one person, party or company fails to uphold their part of an agreement with the plaintiff, resulting in financial harm.
Equitable claims, which is when a request is made to the court to order a party to either take some action or stop some action. For example, a restraining order or injunction to stop doing something (like destruction of property, transfer of land, etc.).
Landlord/tenant disputes, which is when there is a disagreement between the landlord and tenants regarding financial matters or unsafe conditions in the residence that causes physical harm to the tenant (such as black mold).
The defendant’s state of mind is an important factor in determining whether an action is a civil tort or a criminal act.

When state of mind matters
Scenario 1:

You’re walking down the street using the sidewalk and facing traffic. It’s a narrow sidewalk, and cars are passing you with about 3 feet in between you and the oncoming traffic. A driver in an oncoming car hears his phone buzz and takes his eyes off the road for an instant to read the text. He swerves just enough to hit you as he passes. You’re knocked down and suffer broken bones, but you’ll ultimately recover.

This driver is likely negligent because he engaged in distracted driving, which means you can sue him in civil court for your injuries.

Depending on what state you’re in, he might receive a traffic ticket for using his phone while driving. But he likely won’t be charged criminally if there’s no proof that he hit you intentionally or recklessly.

Scenario 2:

You’re the manager of a small retail store. A customer comes in and asks to return an item he purchased over a year ago, even though there are posted signs that clearly indicate “No returns or exchanges after 30 days.” The customer becomes irate and you try your best to appease him, even by offering a discount on a new item, which you normally wouldn’t do.

Finally, after you explain that you don’t have the authority to break the 30-day rule and he’ll have to come back when the owner is available, he storms out of the store in a huff.

About 45 minutes later, you leave the store for your lunch break. As you’re heading toward the parking lot, you suddenly hear an engine rev behind you. The irate customer is in his car and drives — fast — toward you and hits you. Fortunately, you were able to jump out of the way to an extent, but he still knocks you down and you suffer broken bones, bruises, and lacerations.

In this situation, you’d call the police. You can’t charge the customer with a crime, but based on your testimony and the evidence, the police could charge him with a crime like assault if they think he acted intentionally or recklessly.

Actions that are both civil and criminal
There are some circumstances when a case could be both civil and criminal.

Possibly the most well-known example of a case that was tried both in criminal court and in a civil lawsuit is O.J. Simpson.

Refresh my memory:

O.J. Simpson was a Heisman-winning football player, sportscaster, and actor.

In 1994, he was charged with murder in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman.

After a lengthy and highly-viewed criminal trial, he was acquitted (found not guilty). However, the families of Brown Simpson and Goldman filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against him. In that proceeding, the court awarded the families a $33.5 million judgment after finding that Simpson was liable for their deaths.
How is it possible that one court found him not guilty and the other found him liable?

This happens because the burden of proof is different in a criminal proceeding than a civil lawsuit. In a criminal trial, the burden (or responsibility) of proving the defendant’s guilt is always on the prosecution. The defendant is presumed innocent unless the prosecution proves him or her guilty.

In a civil trial, the burden begins with the plaintiff but sometimes shifts to the defendant. In other words, the plaintiff makes a claim and sets forth an initial set of complaints. The defendant responds by denying all or some allegations. The burden then shifts to the defendant to prove their defense or counterclaim.

Criminal trial evidence standard
A criminal case hinges on whether the evidence proves that the defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

The prosecution must show, with credible evidence, that the only logical explanation for how the crime occurred is that the defendant caused it to happen. The judge or jury must believe to a “moral certainty” that the defendant committed the crime.

Credible evidence is a standard required in criminal trials, which means the jury must conclude that the evidence presented is natural, reasonable, and probable.

Civil trial evidence standard
Just like in a criminal trial, a judge or jury needs to be sure the defendant is liable in a civil lawsuit. But the standard is slightly different. In a civil proceeding, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is liable by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the event was more likely than not to have occurred, or that 51% of the evidence favors the plaintiff’s outcome.

In Simpson’s criminal trial, the jury found that the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the murders. However, the jury in the subsequent civil trial determined that a preponderance of the evidence indicated that he was liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

Outcome of civil vs. criminal cases
When you bring a personal injury civil lawsuit, there’s only one remedy: money.

No matter what you’re suing for, whether it’s a contract dispute where you lost money or a personal physical injury, the only thing the court will award in a civil suit is financial damages.

Damages can be economic, non-economic, or punitive. The court will determine whether the defendant was liable, or at fault, for the harm. If so, the defendant will be ordered to pay the plaintiff a sum of money.

In some states, plaintiffs and defendants can be found to both have a percentage of liability. Sometimes that means the plaintiff receives a reduced damage award, based on the amount of liability.

Enjuris tip:
How is liability determined in your state? Review this chart to see what the shared fault rule is where you live:
Fault Systems by State

Use this graphic on your site

The legal intent behind the civil court system is to make a plaintiff whole. In other words, the process is designed to restore you to the position you were in before the harm occurred. The court can’t take away your personal physical injury or bring back a lost loved one, but it can help you to recoup money spent on medical treatment, lost wages, and other financial losses.

In a criminal case, the outcome will be a punishment if the defendant is found guilty. Unlike civil cases, a defendant can’t be partially responsible, and there’s no sharing of liability. There’s a possibility that a defendant can be found guilty on some charges but not others, even when related to the same action.

If the victim participated in the crime in any way, the charges might be reduced or the sentence could be lighter. But the victim wouldn’t benefit financially or otherwise based on a defendant’s guilt or innocence. If the prosecutor believes that the victim also committed a crime, they’d be charged for their actions in a separate proceeding.

There’s a range of possibilities for how a criminal defendant can be sentenced. It’s often at the judge’s discretion and based on the severity of the crime, but there are sentencing guidelines and minimums or maximums for certain charges. The sentencing requirements will vary based on the state where the crime is tried. Generally, a sentence entails either a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment. There can be other penalties, too, like house arrest, or restriction or loss of a driver’s license.

What about double jeopardy?
Double jeopardy is a constitutional right set forth by the 5th Amendment that prohibits the government from prosecuting someone twice for the same crime.

That means if someone has been charged with a crime, the government can’t:

Prosecute a second time after the person is acquitted (found not guilty)
Prosecute for the same offense after the person is convicted (found guilty)
Punish more than once for the same offense
Double jeopardy only applies in criminal cases. That’s why you can file a civil lawsuit after someone has been convicted of a crime (or if the person was acquitted).

Going back to O.J. for a second…

What if new evidence surfaced today that proves his guilt? Say, for example, video footage is uncovered that shows him killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

It’s too late. He’s already been acquitted in a criminal trial. No matter what the evidence is or how compelling it is, he can’t be criminally tried again for the same crime.

However, if O.J. was convicted (found guilty) and new evidence is discovered that would exonerate him (show that he wasn’t guilty), that evidence could be presented to the court in the form of an appeal. The 5th Amendment can only act in someone’s favor, not work against them.
Finding the right lawyer for your case
Just like you wouldn’t see an eye doctor for a sore throat, you wouldn’t go to a criminal lawyer for a civil case. That’s why it’s important to know what kind of case you’re pursuing and who to call.

If you’ve been charged with a crime, you have three options:

You can find a private criminal lawyer to represent you. Even among criminal defense lawyers, you want to find one who specializes in the particular crime involved in the charge.
You can ask for a public defender (a criminal defense attorney appointed by the court).
You can be a pro se defendant (represent yourself).
If you’re the victim of a crime, your only recourse is to report it to law enforcement.

Enjuris tip:
If you were a victim of a crime, the trial does nothing for you except perhaps give you a sense of closure and justice. If your injuries from the event cost you money in medical expenses, property damage, lost wages, or you incurred other financial losses, consider filing a civil lawsuit because it could allow you to recover actual compensation for what you’ve lost.
If you’ve been injured by another person’s negligence, you can hire a personal injury lawyer to handle the case and explore your options. Sometimes, the other party will respond to something as simple as a single demand letter, but you might need to try to negotiate a settlement or even go to trial.

The Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory is your source to find the right lawyer who can best guide you through the complex legal process. Find a lawyer based on location and specialty, and get your day in court.

Free personal injury guides for download to print or save. View all downloads.
Tell your story:
Tell your story – What would you want others to know? Tell us what happened in your accident, and how life has changed for you.
Find an attorney:
Search our directory for personal injury law firms.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.
Popular attorney searches

Representatives answer calls for attorney services. Dial 800-734-4134
Do I need a lawyer?
What does a personal injury attorney do?
Forms and worksheets
Post-accident diary
Attorney interview checklist
Damages/expenses worksheet

Law Student Resources
Learn how to get ahead in your studies and the career field, as well be a guest contributor to our blog and apply for one of our scholarships.

Are you an attorney?
Attract and convert more clients
Dramatic increase in web traffic
Genuine competitive advantage
Guaranteed territory protection

Hire the right lawyer
(800) 734-4134

Lawyer Directory
Car accident attorneys
Defective product attorneys
Personal injury attorneys
Medical malpractice attorneys
Wrongful death attorneys
Workers compensation attorneys
Enjuris Partner Accident & Injury Lawyers
Tampa Personal Injury Attorneys
Lorenzo & Lorenzo (Tampa, Florida)
Finderson Law (Fort Wayne, Indiana)
Wilder Pantazis Law Group (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Brown Trial Firm (Waco, Texas)
The Babcock Law Firm (Denver, Colorado)
Gerber & Holder Law (Atlanta, Georgia)
Law Offices of Robert E. Wisniewski (Phoenix, Arizona)
Murphy Law Firm (Great Falls, Montana)
Law students
Enjuris’ Student Center is a resource for all pre-law college students and current law students. Learn how to get ahead in your studies and the career field, as well be a guest contributor to our blog and apply for one of our scholarships.

Partner with us
If your goal is to help people after an accident or injury – or to prevent them in the first place – we’d love to hear from you! We look to work with educators, healthcare and recovery organizations, insurance providers, law firms and other organizations. Get in touch to see how we can work together. Learn more…

Are you a personal injury lawyer?

Contact us today to get involved.
Services for attorneys
Personal Injury Law Firms Directory
Directory guidelines
Law firm SEO quote
Terms of Use

SEO Advantage®, Inc. SEOLegal Division, Lawyer Marketing 3690 West Gandy Blvd., Suite 444 Tampa, FL 33611 Contact us today

Enjuris is a platform dedicated to helping people who are dealing with life-altering accidents and injuries. We support students, families, caregivers and communities with resources, personal stories and a national directory of injury lawyers. Read more about Enjuris.

Copyright ©2021 Enjuris.com. All rights reserved. Terms and conditions The accuracy, completeness, adequacy or currency of the content is not warranted or guaranteed. Our site and services are not substitutes for the advices or services of an attorney. We recommend you consult a lawyer or other appropriate professional if you want legal advice. Privacy policy.