The Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

In the United States legal system, cases are divided into two broad categories of law: civil and criminal. While there are a number of differences between the two categories, one of the most significant differences between the civil cases and criminal cases is their purpose. Whereas civil cases adjudicate disputes regarding legal duties and responsibilities between individuals or organizations, criminal cases address crimes perpetrated against the state or society as a whole.

For those with little to no experience with the U.S. legal system, these differences can seem fuzzy. However, learning to differentiate between civil and criminal law can help personal injury victims better understand the legal options available to them.

Who Brings the Case and Why

One of the biggest differences between civil and criminal cases is who brings the case. In civil cases, the lawsuit is filed in civil court by an individual or organization known as the plaintiff (or plaintiffs) – usually to collect a debt or secure financial compensation for damages. Examples of civil cases include:

  • Personal injury cases, such as car, truck, and motorcycle accidents, wrongful death, workers' compensation, product liability and slip-and-fall cases
  • Property damage cases
  • Contract violations cases
  • Divorce cases, including child custody, child support, and spousal support cases
  • And more

In criminal cases, the charges are filed in criminal court by a representative of the local, state, or federal government, known as a prosecutor or prosecuting attorney, in response to a suspected violation of law. Examples of criminal cases include:

  • Assault cases
  • Robbery cases
  • Murder cases
  • Drug possession cases
  • DUI cases
  • White collar crimes cases
  • And more

How the Cases Are Handled

There are also significant differences in the way civil and criminal cases are handled. For example, most criminal cases go to court, where they are usually decided by a judge and/or a jury. Additionally, defendants in criminal cases enjoy a wide variety of protections not available to a civil defendant, including:

  • Protections against illegal searches and seizures
  • Protections against double jeopardy
  • Protections against self-incrimination
  • The right to a speedy trial

While civil cases can go to a jury trial, the vast majority are settled out of court or decided by a judge. Also, while criminal defendants are provided a free attorney if they can't afford their own legal counsel, civil defendants must pay for their own representation or defend themselves.

Burdens of Proof and Potential Consequences

The standard of proof is also vastly different in civil and criminal cases. Whereas criminal defendants must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” civil law uses a lower standard of proof where defendants are found guilty by “the preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that what the plaintiff alleged occurred more likely than not. For example, in personal injury cases, plaintiffs must show that the defendant was at least 50 percent at fault for an accident and subsequent injuries.

The two categories of law use very different guilt standards, in part, because civil infractions are generally considered less severe than criminal ones. As a result, civil punishments also tend to be less severe than those in criminal cases. For example, while civil defendants who are found guilty may be subject to paying the plaintiff compensatory or punitive damages, criminal defendants who are found guilty may face large fines, and significant jail or prison time.

Are You Considering Taking Legal Action in a Civil Case?

For Delawareans injured in a motor vehicle crash, at work, by a defective product, or in a slip-and-fall accident, filing a personal injury lawsuit in civil court is the best way to secure compensation for damages, such as medical expenses, property damage, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more. If you're considering pursuing civil legal action, our seasoned personal injury attorneys may be able to help. Contact the Morris James Personal Injury Group today to schedule a free initial case consultation.