Difference Between Civil Liability And Criminal Liability, And The Importance Of Their Separation

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This week’s topic brings back memories of reading the John Grisham book, King of the Torts. The setting is obviously in the USA, where most torts are filed in the world. King of the Torts is good reading and Grisham a brilliant author.

Civil liability vs. Criminal liability

Why do we separate civil liability from criminal liability? Can the same wrongful deed be heard as a civil AND a criminal case?

A civil action is a lawsuit filed by a private person or company (not the government) against another private person or company. Usually, the lawsuit seeks monetary damages for an injury or loss suffered. Losing a civil lawsuit means that you cannot be fined or imprisoned by the government. A classic example is where a neighbor’s tree fell on your car and now you seek damages (money) for the ruination of the vehicle (England, n.d.).

In contrast to civil action is criminal action. This is where the government prosecutes an individual for violating some provision of the criminal code. The penalty may include prison time, a fine, or other terms determined by the judge (England, n.d.).

Take note that a civil case has a lower burden of proof than a criminal case. A civil case needs to be proved by a “preponderance of evidence” and a criminal case “beyond a reasonable doubt” (England, n.d.).

Can one wrongful deed be tried as a criminal case AND a civil case?

Yes, as we see in the case of OJ Simpson. In the criminal case he was found not to be guilty of murder, but in the civil case guilty for “wrongful death”. This case, however, sent out confusing signals to the public about the US Judicial System and how justice is applied.

Excuses

Making excuses is a natural reaction for anyone caught doing something wrong.

Saying “sorry” may be good manners as your mother taught you, but it does not absolve anyone from liability for his/her deeds. However, showing remorse, or not showing remorse, might influence the sentence.

Strict Liability to Everyday Products

In common law countries, strict liability was originally imposed for abnormally dangerous activities. What was the rationale for extending strict liability to everyday products sold in commerce?

An individual’s level of intent can make a world of a difference. We get intentional torts with a high level of intent. In the case of negligence, there is no intent. Strict Liability Torts require neither intent nor carelessness (Lau, 2011).

Classic examples include the transportation of liquid gas on railroad cars. If such a train gets hit by a truck at a level crossing, a whole neighborhood can burn down. Who is responsible?

Another is aircraft crisscrossing our skies. Millions of people are using this mode of transport, and then one after the other, Boeing 737’s drop out of the sky because of a design fault. Who is responsible?

In cases like these, insurance companies pay out the insured. Boeing is also insured in case an aircraft carries falls from the sky. In my country is a road accident fund to compensate the injured. But in some cases, the tragedy remains just what it is: a tragedy.

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