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Business LibreTexts

5.1: Criminal versus Civil Law

  • Page ID
    11432
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Distinguish between criminal law and civil law, and understand the roles of plaintiffs and defendants in both criminal and civil cases.
    2. Understand that both civil and criminal law can impact businesses.

    Criminal Law

    It’s a crime to make unauthorized and harmful physical contact with another person (battery). In fact, it’s a crime even to threaten such contact (assault). Criminal law prohibits and punishes wrongful conduct, such as assault and battery, murder, robbery, extortion, and fraud. In criminal cases, the prosecutor—the party filing the complaint—is usually a government body acting as a representative of society. The defendant—the party charged in the complaint—may be an individual (such as your roommate) or an organization (such as a business). Criminal punishment includes fines, imprisonment, or both.

    Civil Law

    Assault and battery may also be a matter of civil law—law governing disputes between private parties (again, individuals or organizations). In civil cases, the plaintiff sues the defendant to obtain compensation for some wrong that the defendant has allegedly done the plaintiff. Thus your roommate may be sued for monetary damages by the homeowner’s neighbor, with whom he made unauthorized and harmful physical contact.

    Tort Law

    Complaints of assault and battery fall under a specific type of civil law called tort law. A tort is a civil wrong—an injury done to someone’s person or property. The punishment in tort cases is the monetary compensation that the court orders the defendant to pay the plaintiff.

    Intentional Torts

    In categorizing the offense for which your roommate may be sued, we can get even more specific: assault and battery is usually an intentional tort—an intentional act that poses harm to the plaintiff. Note that intent here refers to the act (directing a blow at another person), not to the harm caused (the broken nose suffered as a result of the blow).

    Intentional torts may also pose harm to a party’s property or economic interests:

    • Intentional torts against property may take three forms: (1) entering another person’s land or placing an object on another person’s land without the owner’s permission; (2) interfering with another person’s use or enjoyment of personal property; or (3) permanently removing property from the rightful owner’s possession.
    • Intentional torts against economic interests are the most common torts when it comes to disputes in business. The three most important forms are (1) making a false statement of material fact about a business product; (2) enticing someone to breach a valid contract; and (3) going into business for the sole purpose of taking business from another concern (i.e., not for the purpose of making a profit).

    On a more personal note, you may want to avoid defamation—communicating to a third party information that’s harmful to someone’s reputation. If you put the information in some permanent form (e.g., write it or present it on TV or on the Internet), it’s called libel; if you deliver it orally, it’s called slander. You can also be held liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress if you direct outrageous conduct at someone who’s likely to suffer extreme emotional pain as a result.

    The table  below highlights some of the primary differences between civil and criminal law. It is important to note that a business can be a party to a civil or a criminal suit.

    Civil Law Criminal Law
    Parties Individual or corporate plaintiff vs. individual or corporate defendant Local, state, or federal prosecutor vs. individual or corporate defendant
    Purpose Compensation or deterrence Punishment/deterrence/rehabilitation
    Burden of proof Preponderance of the evidence Beyond a reasonable doubt
    Trial by jury/jury vote Yes (in most cases)/specific number of votes for judgment in favor of plaintiff Yes/unanimous vote for conviction of defendant
    Sanctions/penalties Monetary damages/equitable remedies (e.g., injunction, specific performance) Probation/fine/imprisonment/capital punishment

    Key Takeaways

    • The legal environment of business is the area in which business interacts with the legal system.
    • Criminal law prohibits and punishes wrongful conduct. The prosecutor—the party filing the complaint—is usually a government body acting as a representative of society. The defendant—the party charged in the complaint—may be an individual or an organization. Criminal punishment includes fines, imprisonment, or both. Civil law refers to law governing disputes between private parties. In civil cases, the plaintiff sues the defendant to obtain compensation for some wrong that the defendant has allegedly done the plaintiff.
    • Tort law covers torts, or civil wrongs—injuries done to someone’s person or property. The punishment in tort cases is the monetary compensation that the court orders the defendant to pay the plaintiff.
    • An intentional tort is an intentional act that poses harm to the plaintiff. Intentional torts may be committed against a person, a person’s property, or a person’s economic interests. In addition to intentional torts, the law recognizes negligence torts and strict liability torts.
    • Liability in civil cases may be established by a preponderance of the evidence—the weight of evidence necessary for a judge or jury to decide in favor of the plaintiff (or the defendant). Guilt in criminal cases must be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt—doubt based on reason and common sense after careful, deliberate consideration of all the pertinent evidence.
    • A crime may be a felony—a serious or “inherently evil” crime punishable by imprisonment—or a misdemeanor—a crime that’s not “inherently evil” but that is nevertheless prohibited by society.