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
  • Trespassing
  • Public drunkenness
  • Gambling

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.