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Civil cases generally involve disputes between private parties such as personal injury lawsuits, contract disputes or divorce proceedings. By contrast, criminal cases involve prosecutions by the government against people or entities for committing crimes such as murder, domestic violence, DUI or fraud.
There are five main differences between a civil case and a criminal case. These relate to:
the events that trigger a case,
the parties involved,
the burdens of proof, and
the laws involved.
Note that civil and criminal cases are usually unrelated to one another. However, in some instances, the same act may lead to both a civil case and a related criminal proceeding.
For example, a person could be charged with the crime of manslaughter for killing someone else. However, the killing could form the basis of a civil case under a state’s wrongful death laws.
1. Do different events trigger civil and criminal cases?
Most often, yes. A person or entity usually files a civil lawsuit claiming that another party either:
failed to perform or uphold a legal duty, or
violated private or constitutional rights.1
For example, a party may initiate legal action because:
he/she suffered a personal injury after a physician failed to uphold a duty to provide reasonable medical care,
a contractor, in a breach of contract case, did not honor a duty or term in an agreement, and
an employer discriminated against an employee.
In contrast, a criminal case gets filed to charge a person with a crime. Unless that person pleads guilty or no contest, a case advances to a criminal trial where the person is found either guilty or not guilty.2
Some common crimes that may trigger a criminal case include:
Note that both civil and criminal cases can take place in state courts and federal courts.
2. Do civil and criminal cases involve different parties?
The terminology used for parties in a civil litigation matter differs from the terminology used in a criminal case.
In civil court, a “plaintiff” files a case against a “defendant.” Collectively, the parties are often referred to as “litigants.”
Note that the plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases can include:
individuals (for example, a private party),
With regards to the criminal justice system, the government initiates a case against a “criminal defendant.” A “prosecutor” or “district attorney” files criminal charges against the defendant, on behalf of the government, and alleges that the person committed a:
During criminal court proceedings, criminal defendants have the right to be represented by a criminal defense attorney or public defender.
3. Do civil and criminal cases lead to different outcomes?
Most often, yes. Civil cases can end via a settlement between the litigants or a civil trial. If a plaintiff succeeds in a case, outcomes can include:
the defendant compensating the plaintiff for injuries or wrongdoings,
the defendant paying fines, or
a modification in the legal relationship between the litigants (for example, a change in a child custody relationship or a modification of contractual terms between the parties).
A criminal court case typically ends via a plea agreement between the state and a defendant or at a criminal trial.
If the government has a weak case, sometimes a prosecutor may decide not to pursue criminal charges.
But if a defendant is found guilty during a case, a judge will “sentence” the party and impose some type of punishment for the crime that was committed.
While punishments will vary among different types of cases, they can include:
jail time or prison time,
restitution for property damage, and/or
In general, the penalties for felony crimes are more severe than those for misdemeanor offenses.
4. Are there different burdens of proof?
Usually, yes. A “burden of proof” generally refers to how much proof a prosecutor or plaintiff must have before he/she can obtain a ruling against a defendant. The term is also referred to as a “standard of proof.”
Under most state laws, “preponderance of the evidence” is the typical burden of proof used in civil cases. Under this standard, a plaintiff has to show that it is more likely than not that a fact is true in order to prevail.3
In contrast, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard of proof used in most criminal cases. To meet this burden, most states say a prosecutor must present evidence that is so convincing of guilt that there is no question in the minds of the jurors that the defendant committed the crime charged.4
The burden is the highest evidentiary standard used in the legal system.
5. Do the different cases involve different laws?
On a general level, yes. Most civil cases are governed by a state’s civil laws (for example, a civil procedure law regarding a statute of limitations).
However, criminal cases are generally governed by a state’s criminal laws (for example, a criminal procedure law regarding the admissibility of evidence).
Note, though, that some cases may involve an interplay between the two sets of laws.
Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Beyond a reasonable doubt.”
About the Author
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.