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The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Cases

On Behalf of Fiol Law Group|Posted in Lawsuits on October 30, 2018

Though TV and movies often conflate civil and criminal cases, from a legal perspective, they are very distinct from each other. Criminal cases seek justice for wrongs committed by an individual and generally involve prosecution from the state or federal court. Civil cases, by contrast, generally exist between two or more private parties and seek financial recourse for wrong-doing or negligence. Learn the differences between civil and criminal cases, as well as when these two might overlap.

What Is a Criminal Case?

A criminal case might exist when a state brings an action against an individual for violating a law outlined in the Florida Penal Code. Crimes, unlike civil cases, are offenses against society as a whole or at against the state of Florida. In other words, even though a person may assault another person, the law considers it a crime against everyone living in the state. As such, a state prosecutor brings the case against the individual on behalf of everyone living in the state.

One of the most obvious differences between a criminal case and a civil case regards punishment. In a criminal case, a defendant may face the prospect of jail time, while this possibility does not exist in civil cases. However, a criminal case may involve payment of monetary fines to the court as well.

What Is a Civil Case?

A civil case, by contrast, involves a legal action filed by an individual or party, against another party. These cases seek compensation for damages, whether material or non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. A party generally files a civil case in court on the basis of negligence. In other words, legal grounds for a civil case may exist when a person’s recklessness or carelessness leads to another person’s injuries or property damage. However, a person may also have grounds for a suit when malicious or intentional conduct leads to damages.

Differences Between Criminal and Civil Cases

Several other key differences between criminal and civil cases exist:

  • The evidentiary standard for criminal and civil cases is very different. To face conviction for a crime, a jury must have assurance of a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, a civil case depends on a “preponderance of the evidence,” which is much lower. To decide a civil case, a jury or judge must decide that it’s “more likely than not” that the plaintiff’s allegations are true.
  • A criminal case guarantees a trial by jury to a defendant, but a civil case does not. Often, civil cases settle out of court or may only involve a judge. In some cases, however, civil cases also involve a trial by jury, and the jury decides on the award.
  • In a criminal trial, a defendant is constitutionally entitled to an attorney, and the state will provide one in the event he or she cannot afford one. A defendant in a civil case, however, has no such right.

Cases Involving Both Civil and Criminal Courts

In some instances, a case might involve both criminal and civil penalties. A common example might include violent crime. The cases against O.J. Simpson, for instance, are a prime example In a criminal court, the jury declared him not guilty, but in a civil case, the jury ordered him to pay millions in punitive damages for the wrongful death of his ex-wife and her friend. In this case, the criminal court and civil courts had different verdicts, but that’s not always the case.

For example, a case that involves a drunk driver who was responsible for someone’s death while behind the wheel may be both a criminal and civil case. The driver may be criminally liable for vehicular manslaughter – and courts find him to be – the families of the victim may also file a wrongful death claim against the defendant to compensate for damages and the emotional and financial consequences of losing a loved one.

Criminal and civil cases have distinct differences – however, in some cases, the two may coincide.