What Is The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Litigation?

We have heard the aforementioned question from our clients many times before. Currently, the United States legal system has to divisions: criminal and civil. Litigation is a term that simply refers to bringing someone to court in order to resolve a dispute.

The first major difference between a civil court case and a criminal court case is who is the plaintiff (the wronged party). In a civil case, the wronged party (whether it be an individual or a business) is the plaintiff.  In a criminal case, the plaintiff is the State (where the alleged misconduct took place) which is usually represented by a lawyer (sometimes referred to as prosecutor or district attorney).

The second major difference between a civil court case and a criminal court case is the level of standard of proof. In civil cases, plaintiffs need to convince the judge or jury of something called “preponderance of evidence” which is a fancy way of saying they need to show that their evidence is more convincing than the evidence of the defendant. It does not mean that the plaintiff has more evidence, just that the plaintiff has more accurate evidence. According to Cornell University Law School, that “preponderance of evidence” means that at least “50 percent of the evidence points to something.”  However, this is very different than criminal cases where the State needs to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed a crime. The jury must also come to a unanimous decision.

Confusing? Here’s an example: OJ Simpson was found NOT GUILTY during his criminal case because the prosecutor could not convince a jury that he committed a crime without any reasonable doubt. However, Nicole Brown Simpon’s family sued OJ for wrongful death and accused him of being liable for her death. Because the family only had to show “preponderance of evidence” OJ was found GUILTY in his civil case.

Which brings us to the third major difference between a civil case and a criminal case: punishments. In a civil case, the defendant, if found guilty, is usually ordered to pay some sort of compensation to the plaintiff. In a criminal case, the defendant, if found guilty, could serve jail time, probation, or pay a fine.

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