In the United States, there are two types of laws in place in order to punish wrongdoing or compensate victims of crime. These are known as criminal law and civil law. Civil law is in place to deal with behavior that causes some sort of injury to an individual or other private party through lawsuits. The consequences for any parties found liable for these acts are typically monetary, although they can also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders. 

Civil law most commonly addresses disputes between individuals and/or organizations. These are disputes between private parties. Criminal law deals with crimes, or, behaviors which break the rules society has created. Criminal law generally imposes heavier sentences on the guilty, with punishments ranging from community service to the death penalty.

Civil law can also result in heavy fines or other consequences, similar to criminal law. However, the punishments can often be far lighter in comparison. Because of this, criminal law often comes with additional protections for the defendant. An example of this would be the reading of Miranda Rights before an interrogation. Additionally, the burden of proof for guilt is higher in criminal law cases than in civil lawsuits.

It is important to note that civil law and criminal law are not necessarily exclusive. It can be possible to be sued and fined in a civil law proceeding, and then sentenced in criminal law, or vice versa. Generally speaking, if a person has already been found guilty in a criminal court of law, it will commonly be easier to sue them and find them liable in a civil law court.

Civil law encompasses a wide variety of cases, including:

  • Personal injury;
  • Employment law;
  • Family law;
  • Business and finance law;
  • Immigration law;
  • Intellectual Property law;
  • Contract law;
  • Real estate law;
  • Medical law; and
  • Landlord and tenant law.

How Does Civil Law Procedure Work? 

Generally speaking, civil cases begin when one party claims to have been harmed in some way by another person or business. The plaintiff would begin a case by filing a complaint, which is a document outlining facts and legal theories. A complaint also requests relief. The plaintiff could use the complaint to request damages, an injunction, and/or a court order that states the parties’ rights under either a contract or a statute.

Next, both parties will undergo a phase of the lawsuit called the discovery phase. During the discovery phase of a lawsuit, both parties will obtain information that either tends to support or disprove the theories alleged by the Plaintiff in the original complaint. For example, either side might contact witnesses or conduct depositions to obtain information. 

After the discovery phase of the lawsuit, a judge and/or jury will then analyze the facts of the case and apply appropriate law to those facts. They will make a final judgment and determine what legal consequences will be levied upon the defendant. It is not uncommon for parties involved in a civil law matter to resolve the issue on their own. They may agree to settle and come to a compromise in order to avoid going to trial, and potentially losing. 

Civil settlements mostly consist of the defendant paying money to the plaintiff, and may be structured in such a way to result in an enforceable judgment. Some other processes involved in civil law procedure include:

  • Filing an answer and counterclaim within fifteen days of receiving the complaint, or thirty days if the complaint was posted in front of the defendant’s official place of business;
  • Serving a summons and copy of the complaint within seven days of the initial filing; and
  • Filing a witness list, as well as copies of all relevant documents seven days prior to hearing.

What Happens During a Civil Trial? 

Should a dispute progress beyond any pre-trial motions, the case will be determined at a trial. A jury is selected if appropriate, which consists of a random selection of the qualified population. Opening statements are made by each party’s attorney. This opening statement presents the theory of their case, as well as the conclusion that they intend for the judge and/or jury to arrive at. An opening statement also outlines the evidence that the attorney will utilize in order to support their case.

As previously mentioned, the plaintiff has the burden of proof in civil cases. What this means is that the plaintiff is obligated to present evidence on the subject of the lawsuit, and prove or disprove any disputed facts. Over the course of the civil trial, the burden of proof may shift from the plaintiff to the defendant. The plaintiff makes the original allegations in a complaint and bears the initial burden, while the defendant then files a responsive pleading denying some or all of the allegations. The burden then shifts to them to prove their defenses or counterclaim. 

The rules of civil procedure, which are utilized by all U.S. Courts, require that a plaintiff prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. A preponderance of the evidence roughly means a greater than 50% chance, based on all the reasonable evidence, that the defendant did the wrong that caused the damage. The defendant does not need to do anything to defend their case if the plaintiff fails to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence.

Once opening statements have been made, witnesses will be interviewed and cross examined. The plaintiff’s attorney will examine the witness, and the defendant’s attorney may conduct their cross examination thereafter. After, the plaintiff will rest their case and the defendant may then make a motion for a directed verdict. 

Closing arguments are made, and the jury will receive instructions before deliberating the case. Once final decisions have been reached, they will issue their verdict. The losing party has the right to appeal the decision to a higher court.

What Are Some Common Examples of Civil Law Violations? 

Civil courts most commonly hear:

  • Personal injury disputes, such as slip and fall incidents or motor vehicle accidents;
  • Family law issues, such as divorce, child custody, child support, or adoption;
  • Property and real estate issues, such as complaints regarding pre existing easements or property boundary disputes between neighbors; and
  • Contracts, business, and intellectual property disputes, which typically involve a dispute as to the terms of an agreement or involving instances where one party has breached the terms of the contract/agreement.

Some specific examples of civil law violations include:

  • Defamation, such as libel and slander;
  • Breach of contract issues;
  • Breach of fiduciary duty
  • Negligence which results in injury or wrongful death; and
  • Property damage or a breach of an individual’s duty of care.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for a Civil Law Issue?

One party may sue or be sued under almost any non-criminal theory of law. If you believe you have been wronged financially or otherwise, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable civil attorney in order to help you determine whether you have a solid case. 

Additionally, if another person or business does sue you, it is best to immediately consult with an attorney in order to determine the best course of action. Delaying your response to the lawsuit could have dire consequences for your defense. An experienced and local attorney will represent you in court as needed, as well as help you work towards a reasonable and satisfactory damages award.