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Matthew A. Radefeld and Daniel A. Juengel

Civil vs criminal liability: what’s the difference?

On Behalf of | Oct 3, 2023 | Uncategorized |

People may assume that only individuals can be accused of criminal offenses and corporations can only be pursued in civil courts. Yet, companies can also face criminal allegations in addition to civil charges. While both involve potential consequences for a corporation, civil liability and criminal liability are two distinct legal concepts.

Similarities between civil and criminal liability

To start, both civil and criminal liabilities share a few similarities. Both civil and criminal liability can arise from the actions of a corporation, and both types of cases involve a legal process involving evidence and legal arguments. In both instances, the burden of proof lies with the party bringing the case – the government in criminal cases and the plaintiff in civil cases. Financial penalties may be imposed on the corporation if liability is established, and in both civil and criminal cases, the liability can be based on the actions of individuals within the corporation

Differences between civil and criminal liability

The purpose of determining liability in civil cases differs from assigning criminal liability. In civil cases, the aim is to compensate the victim or address the harm done, whereas criminal liability is intended to punish and deter criminal behavior.  Civil liability cases are brought by private parties, while criminal liability cases are initiated by the government. 

In civil cases, liability can be established based on negligence or other forms of misconduct, whereas criminal liability requires proof of criminal intent or recklessness. 

Criminal cases will be tried in criminal court, while civil cases go to civil court. Even though these courtrooms are in the same courthouse in most counties, they will be held in different courtrooms. Judges may serve in criminal and civil courts throughout their careers- they will only preside over one or the other at any given time. 

Technically, Both civil and criminal cases can go to trial and be judged by a jury of either 6 or 12- a jury trial or be judged and sentenced by the judge only- which is called a bench trial. However, less than one-tenth of criminal cases are brought to trial, most are resolved with a plea deal, and even fewer civil cases will go to trial, with most cases being resolved through settlements or even by negotiations outside of the courtroom,

Should they go to trial- the standard of proof required in civil and criminal cases also differs. In civil cases, the standard of proof is typically lower, requiring a preponderance of the evidence, whereas in criminal cases, the standard of proof is higher, requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

A sentence for criminal charges can involve fines, probation or even imprisonment for individuals involved in the wrongdoing. The outcome of a civil case is limited to monetary damages resulting from wrongdoing.