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2.10: Reading: Civil vs. Criminal Cases

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    11483
  • Most of the cases we will look at in this textbook are civil cases. Criminal cases are certainly of interest to business, especially as companies may break criminal laws. A criminal case involves a governmental decision—whether state or federal—to prosecute someone (named as a defendant) for violating society’s laws. The law establishes a moral minimum and does so especially in the area of criminal laws; if you break a criminal law, you can lose your freedom (in jail) or your life (if you are convicted of a capital offense). In a civil action, you would not be sent to prison; in the worst case, you can lose property (usually money or other assets), such as when Ford Motor Company lost a personal injury case and the judge awarded $295 million to the plaintiffs or when Pennzoil won a $10.54 billion verdict against Texaco (see Chapter 7 “Introduction to Tort Law”).

    Some of the basic differences between civil law and criminal law cases are illustrated in Table 1.1 “Differences between Civil and Criminal Cases”.

    Table 1.1 Differences between Civil and Criminal Cases

    Civil Cases Criminal Cases
    Parties Plaintiff brings case; defendant must answer or lose by default Prosecutor brings case; defendant may remain silent
    Proof Preponderance of evidence Beyond a reasonable doubt
    Reason To settle disputes peacefully, usually between private parties To maintain order in society
    To punish the most blameworthy
    To deter serious wrongdoing
    Remedies Money damages (legal remedy) Fines, jail, and forfeitures
    Injunctions (equitable remedy)
    Specific performance (equity)

    Regarding plaintiffs and prosecutors, you can often tell a civil case from a criminal case by looking at the caption of a case going to trial. If the government appears first in the caption of the case (e.g., U.S. v. Lieberman, it is likely that the United States is prosecuting on behalf of the people. The same is true of cases prosecuted by state district attorneys (e.g., State v. Seidel). But this is not a foolproof formula. Governments will also bring civil actions to collect debts from or settle disputes with individuals, corporations, or other governments. Thus U.S. v. Mayer might be a collection action for unpaid taxes, or U.S. v. Canada might be a boundary dispute in the International Court of Justice. Governments can be sued, as well; people occasionally sue their state or federal government, but they can only get a trial if the government waives its sovereign immunity and allows such suits. Warner v. U.S., for example, could be a claim for a tax refund wrongfully withheld or for damage caused to the Warner residence by a sonic boom from a US Air Force jet flying overhead.