Civil Law and Criminal Law – what’s the difference?

     Protecting citizens from harmful acts is basic to an orderly society.  To protect citizens, governments pass laws making wrongful acts crimes.  Criminal law generally deals with crimes, whereas civil law generally deals with torts.  Certain incidents may give rise to a civil and a criminal case; to begin to comprehend the legal system, first one must know the difference between civil law and criminal law and how the two systems are intertwined as a sort of checks and balances against perversions (unjust manipulations) of the other.

Crimes & Torts
What’s the Difference?

Crime – a wrongful act that the state or federal government has identified as a crime because it injures or interferes with the interest of society.  Crimes are identified within a publicly-accessible, fixed body of statutes (penal codes, ordinances, building codes, etc.) called laws, which are enforced by officers. 

   A criminal case is a criminal proceeding.  The accused is called a ‘defendant”.  The victim is:

  • the person who has been hurt.
  • the state.
  • other governmental agency (i.e. city, county, federal government, etc.).

     The charges are brought by the government.  If the defendant loses, the defendant must serve a sentence.  A fine is paid to the government and there is possible restitution to the victim.

     Many acts that result in harm to others are not crimes.  Accidentally hitting another car with your own is not a crime, even though it could cause harm.  It is a tort.  

Tort – a wrongful act that injures or interferes with another’s person or property.  A tort can be intentional or unintentional (negligence), or it can be a tort of strict liability.  A tort case is a civil court proceeding.  The accused is the “defendant” and the victim is a “plaintiff.”  The charges are brought by the plaintiff.  If the defendant loses, the defendant has to pay damages to the plaintiff.

Tort cases are heard in Civil Proceedings:

     The legal process is quite different from criminal proceedings. The civil process provides a legal means for victims of harmful acts to be compensated for the harm done to them.

     To win a tort case, the plaintiff must prove two things:

(1) the defendant committed the tort and
(2) as a result of the tort, the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s property was injured.

     If a plaintiff can prove both, s/he is entitled to recover money damages from the defendant to compensate for the injury.  The defendant is liable, which means he is responsible for paying the damages.

Liable – likely to incur a penalty as a result of having commit a civil wrong or breach of contract, answerable by tort.  aka legally liable.

Liability – the quality; state, or condition of being legally obligated or accountable; a debt enforceable by civil remedy or criminal punishment.

The Same Act May be a Crime and a Tort:

     Why are two different legal actions against one wrongful act possible?  In effect, criminal law provides a way of punishing people who commit crimes. It acts to protect all citizens from such wrongdoing.  Criminal law is not concerned with the individual victim. The law of torts, on the other hand, provides a way to compensate victims of wrongful acts.  

     In reality, victims of crimes like burglary, rape, and armed robbery rarely sue the wrongdoers primarily because the wrongdoer has no money or property from which to collect. [1]  However, it is important to note that there are several non-monetary forms of relief that can be requested by a court.

When Laws Cause Torts
or Officers Commit Crimes:

     Laws which which are likely to violate civil rights are a liability against taxpayers; such laws can be challenged & overturned via following the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (see Rule 5.1).

     When an officer violates a civilian’s rights, it is called a Constitutional tort, which is a type of tort

     If the officer violated procedure & commit a crime, it is called a color of law crime.  If the (county, city, state, federal, tribal, etc.) agency did not properly train or vet the officer, the agency can be held accountable via filing a claim (a civil complaintand a criminal complaint (since the act is both civil and criminal).

Definitions, Types of Torts, and Procedure for Filing a Claim:


1. A civil wrong, other than breach of contract, for which a remedy may be obtained, usually in the form of damages; a breach of a duty that the law imposes on persons who stand in a particular relation to one another.  Tortious conduct is typically one of four types:

1.) a culpable or intentional act resulting in harm
2.) an act involving culpable & unlawful conduct causing unintentional harm
3.) a culpable act of inadvertence involving an unreasonable risk of harm
4.) a nonculpable act resulting in accidental harm for which, because of the hazards involved, the law imposes strict or absolute liability despite the absence of fault. [2]

1. A wrong involving a breach of duty and resulting in an injury to the person or property of another.  A tort is distinguished from a breach of contract in that a tort is a violation of a duty established by law, whereas a breach of contract results from a failure to meet an obligation created by the agreement of the parties.  Although the same act may be both a crime and a tort, the crime is an offense against the public which is prosecuted by the state in a criminal action; the tort is a private wrong that must be pursued by the injured party in a civil actionSee Federal Tort Claims Act; intentional tort; maritime tort; joint tort; joint tortfeasors, personal tort. [3]

(second definition)

“(pl.) The branch of law dealing with such wrongs.” [2]

     Excerpt from J.W. Cecil Turner’s Kenny’s Outlines of Criminal Law:

      “To ask concerning any occurrence ‘Is this a crime or is it a tort?’  is — to borrow Sir James Stephen’s apt illustration — no wiser than it would be to ask concerning a man ‘Is he a father or a son?’ For he may well be both.[4]

     Excerpt from R.F.V. Heuston’s Salmond on the Law of Torts:

     “We may… define a tort as a civil wrong for which the remedy is a common-law action for unliquidated damages, & which is not exclusively the breach of a contract or the breach of a trust or other merely equitable obligation.” [5]

     Excerpt from W. Page Keeton’s Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts:

   “It might be possible to define a tort by enumerating the things that it is not.  It is not a crime, it is not a breach of contract, it is not necessarily concerned with property rights or problems of government, but is the occupant of a large residuary field remaining if these are taken out of the law.  But this again is illusory, & the conception of a tort of legal garbage-can to hold what can be put nowhere else is of no help.  In the first place, tort is a field which pervades the entire law,& is so interlocked at every point with property, contract & other accepted classifications that, as the student of law soon discovers, the categories are quite arbitrary.  In the second, there is a central theme, or basis or idea, running through the cases of what are called torts, which, although difficult to put into words, does distinguish them in a greater or less degree from other types of cases.[6]

Etymology of “Tort”:

 ” (mid-13c.), “injury, wrong,” from Old French tort “wrong, injustice, crime” (11c.), from Medieval Latin tortum “injustice,” noun use of neuter of tortus ‘wrung, twisted,’ past participle of Latin torquere ‘turn, turn awry, twist, wring, distort’ (from PIE root *terkw- “to twist”).  Legal sense of ‘breach of a duty, whereby someone acquires a right of action for damages’ is first recorded 1580s.” [7]

Learn More:

     It is important to learn which type of tort you’ll be filing, as well as which type of injury you suffered (there are various types of both physical and non-physical injuries that are recognized by the courts), and then you will be able to assess damages, consider any forms of non-monetary relief you may be seeking, file a claim, and apply procedure.

General Legal Terms pertaining to Torts

Types of Torts

Types of Injuries

Assess Monetary Damages

Non-Monetary Forms of Relief Available from the Courts

Study Procedure

File a Claim


Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is pertinent to people everywhere, and is being utilized in accordance with Fair Use.

[1]:,, “The Difference between Torts and Crimes” by: Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia:

[2]: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black & Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-62130-6

[3]:  Ballantine’s Law Dictionary Legal Assistant Edition
by Jack Ballantine 
(James Arthur 1871-1949).  Doctored by Jack G. Handler, J.D. © 1994 Delmar by Thomson Learning.  ISBN 0-8273-4874-6.

[4]: J.W. Cecil Turner’s Kenny’s Outlines of Criminal Law 543 (16th ed. 1952)

[5]: R.F.V. Heuston, Salmond on the Law of Torts 13 (17th e. 1977)

[6]: W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts § 1, at 2-3 (5th ed. 1984)

[7]:  Online Etymology Dictionary, “Tort”:


Criminal Proceedings

Intro to Law

Federal Rules of Procedure

Like this website?

Please Support Our Fundraiser

or donate via PayPal:


Disclaimer: Wild Willpower does not condone the actions of Maximilian Robespierre, however the above quote is excellent!

This website is being broadcast for First Amendment purposes courtesy of

Question(s)?  Suggestion(s)?
We look forward to hearing from you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *