What is the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law?

Television courtroom dramas typically focus on criminal cases more frequently than civil cases. While the two types of trials appear similar on the surface, the purpose of a criminal trial is to prove guilt to punish criminals. Civil trials, on the other hand, involve settling disputes and determining appropriate compensation.

Areas of difference between civil and criminal trials

The following represent some of the main differences between the two types of cases:

  • Involved parties. Both criminal and civil trials involve plaintiffs and defendants. However, in criminal cases, the plaintiff is the government — while in civil cases the plaintiff is anyone who files a lawsuit to settle a grievance with another party. For example, an injury victim in a car accident might sue the negligent driver liable for the accident.
  • Establishing proof. In both cases, the burden of proof falls to the plaintiff or prosecution. However, in criminal cases, the prosecution must prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil lawsuits require only a preponderance of proof to establish liability.
  • Penalties. A convicted criminal can face fines, imprisonment and other penalties. A liable defendant typically must compensate the injured party. Compensation can come in the form of payment for expenses related to an injury or any goods or services, such as performing repairs to substandard construction work on a home.

Wrongful acts can create both criminal and civil cases

When someone commits a wrongful act that causes injury to another party, he or she can face criminal charges and a civil lawsuit brought by the injured party. However, because of the different standards of evidence, the result of one case has no bearing on the other case. In other words, someone acquitted of criminal charges can still face a guilty verdict in a civil case.

A famous example involves the criminal and civil cases against O.J. Simpson in the late 1990s. An article in The New York Times archives about one of his appeals against the civil judgments illustrates the difference between how civil and criminal trials operate. In his criminal trial, a bloody glove intended to provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt did not prove the case of the prosecution, because the glove did not fit the hand of the defendant. However, civil cases require only a preponderance of evidence. The prosecuting attorney in the civil case chose to avoid using the glove and the police detective testimony in his case, frustrating the plans of the defense attorney. Mr. Simpson avoided jail from his criminal trial. However, a jury found him guilty in the civil wrongful death case, awarding a $33.5 million judgment against him.

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