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Tort Law–Criminal Law Versus Civil Law

Apart from legislation granting a right to sue for a specific harm, personal injury law generally consists of tort law and the civil procedure for enforcing it. Law is sometimes divided into civil law and criminal law. This article discusses the distinction between civil law and criminal law as it relates to tort law and personal injury.

Criminal Law

Criminal law is the law that generally provides protection to the government and each person from those who would intentionally harm that society. Besides the fact that crime is usually an act or omission that it is inherently evil, a crime is an act or omission that cannot be condoned or tolerated without endangering everyone. The punishment for a crime is usually a fine or imprisonment.

Civil Law

Although criminal law tends to dominate headlines in the media, there are far more civil laws than there are criminal laws.

Unlike criminal law and its concern with intentional harm to society, civil law generally provides for the legal relationships between persons, organizations, and the government. Tort law is a kind of civil law. Tort law generally provides protection to each person from harm not intended to harm society as a whole. The result of a violation of tort is usually becoming liable to pay for the damages that are caused to the victim.

An Example of the Distinction Between Criminal Law and Civil Law

Suppose you know a person who is a “party animal.” Suppose that the person has a little too much to drink at a party, is found intoxicated at the wheel of a car, and is arrested for drunk driving. Suppose that the person pleads guilty, and as part of the person’s punishment, the person’s driver’s license is suspended.

Now suppose that you know a second person whose best friend recently died. Suppose that the second person, still in mourning for the death of the best friend, inadvertently drives through a red light, crashes into another car, and severely injures the driver of the other car. Suppose that the second person’s insurance company pays for the severe injuries that are caused to the other driver, and that the second person’s punishment for running a red light is to pay a small fine.

Why is the first person, who seemingly caused no harm to anyone, not allowed to drive, while the second nice person, who caused severe harm to another, allowed to drive? Because the first person’s crime, drunk driving, is deemed to much more seriously endanger society as a whole than the second person’s crime, running a red light.

Why did the second person’s insurance company have to pay money to the injured driver on behalf of the second person, while the first person’s insurance company wasn’t even involved? Because the second person committed a tort, and the first person did not. Unlike criminal law, which protects society as a whole, tort law protects each individual person who is harmed. If there is no harm to an individual, as in the case of the first person, there is no liability under tort law.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.