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The Difference Between Civil And Criminal Cases

Depending on the type of crime or dispute that occurs, there are different legal actions one can take. Many of these legal actions result in cases handled by lawyers or courts. These cases may fall under civil law, criminal law or both.

Understanding the differences between these two types of cases can empower assault and sexual assault victims. This knowledge can help survivors take legal action against the people and institutions that wronged them.

Depending on the type of crime or dispute that occurs, there are different legal actions one can take. Many of these legal actions result in cases handled by lawyers or courts. These cases may fall under civil law, criminal law or both.

Understanding the differences between these two types of cases can empower assault and sexual assault victims. This knowledge can help survivors take legal action against the people and institutions that wronged them.

What Is A Civil Case?

A civil case is a dispute over civil or private rights. In a civil case, one party injured another party by way of negligence or by failing to uphold a certain responsibility. 

Individuals or entities can seek a solution to the dispute through a civil lawsuit.

Civil Case Examples

  • Breach of contract
  • Property damage
  • Custody disputes
  • Bankruptcy
  • Defamation (slander or libel)
  • Negligence resulting in an injury or death

Many youth and religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, have been sued in lawsuits over negligence related to child sexual abuse. Similarly, companies such as Lyft, Uber, Airbnb and Grubhub have faced negligence claims related to sexual assault and physical attacks associated with their services.

What Is A Criminal Case?

By definition, a criminal case is a crime against the government. This is true in all criminal cases, despite the fact that many criminal offenses are committed against individuals. 

By allegedly victimizing an individual, the accused broke the law. Thus, state or federal prosecutors will bring criminal charges against the accused.

Criminal Case Examples

  • Theft
  • Possession of a controlled substance

Main Differences Between A Civil And Criminal Case

There are several major differences between civil and criminal cases:

  • How Cases Are Initiated

    Criminal 

    Prosecutors representing the state or federal government initiate the criminal case.

    Civil

    A private party, otherwise known as the plaintiff, initiates a civil case. The plaintiff is often the injured party or the victim of a crime.

  • How Statute Of Limitations Apply

    A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs vary based on the jurisdiction, the crime or civil dispute, and the intended legal action.

    Some crimes will fall under criminal and civil law. In these instances, there is often a separate statute to file a civil claim versus pursuing criminal charges for the same crime.

    For example, in the state of New York, survivors of child sexual abuse can file a civil lawsuit against an abuser until they reach 55 years of age. However, for the same exact crime, state prosecutors must bring felony criminal charges against the abuser before the victim turns 28 years of age.

  • Right To An Attorney

    Criminal

    The defendant in a criminal case has a right to an attorney. The state must provide the defendant with an attorney if the defendant is not able to afford one.

    Civil 

    The defendant in a civil case does not have the right to an attorney. If a defendant can’t afford legal representation, they have to represent themselves.

  • Burden Of Proof

    In either case, the accuser must establish proof of the claims, otherwise known as the burden of proof.

    Criminal 

    In a criminal case, the prosecution is responsible for proving the defendant committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Because a criminal case can result in a greater punishment, the burden of proof is higher than what is required in a civil case.

    Civil

    In a civil case, the standard of proof is relatively lower than in a criminal case.

    The plaintiff must prove the defendant is liable for the claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence.”

    Put simply, the plaintiff in a civil case must prove the claim against the defendant is more likely to be true than untrue.

  • How Cases Are Decided

    Criminal 

    A jury typically decides the outcome in a criminal trial.

    Civil

    A civil court judge typically decides the outcome in a civil case.

  • Legal Protections Available To The Defendant

    Criminal

    A criminal defendant is legally protected against actions by the police or prosecution that break the defendant’s constitutional rights.

    Civil

    A defendant in a civil case is not afforded the same legal protections as someone facing criminal charges.

  • Punishment

    Criminal

    Depending on the crime, a convicted criminal may face prison time, probation and/or a monetary fine.

    Civil

    Punishment in a civil case is typically a monetary penalty. A civil case may also result in an injunction or an order to change behavior.

    If a defendant is found guilty in a civil proceeding, they do not serve jail time unless they were found guilty in a related criminal case.

Some Acts Lead To Civil Lawsuits And Criminal Charges

Some criminal acts can lead to a civil and a criminal case. For example, many Catholic dioceses have been sued for their role in the priest abuse scandal.

In many of these cases, a priest or clergy member sexually abused a minor. Rather than report the crime, many dioceses and church officials covered up the abuse. Thus, they are also negligent for the crime. 

Therefore, the state can prosecute the accused clergy member, and the victim has the right to sue the responsible diocese

Many of these civil cases against negligent Catholic dioceses have resulted in settlements or payouts for victims. 

An experienced, knowledgeable lawyer can help victims determine if a civil lawsuit can be filed following a crime.

Some personal injury attorneys, such as The Meneo Law Group, will work on a contingency basis. This means the client will only pay their legal team if a settlement or monetary award is secured.

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Sources [+]
Ron Meneo, Managing Partner at Meneo Law Group.

Meneo Group managing partner: Ron Meneo

Ron Meneo is the managing partner of The Meneo Law Group. With more than 40 years of experience, he represents clients across the country on a variety of complex legal matters, including personal injury due to institutional sexual abuse, unsafe pharmaceutical drugs and other practice areas. He is a recipient of Martindale-Hubbell’s prestigious AV® Preeminent Rating. He has also served as an editor and contributor for several legal journals.