What is a Civil Lawsuit?

Learn the basics of a civil lawsuit, and how civil court differs from criminal court.

In general terms, a civil lawsuit is the court-based process through which Person A can seek to hold Person B liable for some type of wrong. Usually, if Person A is successful, he or she will be awarded compensation for the harm that resulted from Person B’s action or inaction. (Note: civil lawsuits can also be brought by and against businesses and other entities).

So, a civil lawsuit can be brought over a contract dispute, a residential eviction after a broken lease, injuries sustained in a car accident, or countless other harms or disputes.

Unlike a criminal case, which is looking to punish the wrongdoer for a crime,  a civil case is meant to compensate the victim.

A Civil Case vs. A Criminal Case

Civil court differs from criminal court in a number of key ways.

Civil Suits Can Be Brought By Anyone

First, a civil case is usually instigated by a private party -- a person or business who has allegedly suffered some kind of damage. In contrast, a criminal case is brought by a prosecutor or other attorney representing the local government.

The Burden of Proof is “Lighter” in a Civil Case

Second, the “burden of proof” in a civil case -- what must be shown in order for the defendant to be held liable for what the plaintiff is alleging -- is “by a preponderance of the evidence,” meaning it is more likely than not that what the plaintiff is alleging is actually true. In a criminal case, the government must show the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a much tougher standard to meet.

The Loser in a Civil Case Pays in Dollars Rather Than Time Behind Bars

Third, what’s at stake in a civil lawsuit can usually be measured in money. The plaintiff is asking the court to make a judgment in the plaintiff’s favor, and if such a judgment is made it is usually accompanied by a court order entitling the plaintiff to a certain amount of money (called a damages award) to be paid by the defendant. Compare that to a criminal case, where if the defendant is convicted of a crime, he or she is usually facing the prospect of jail time, probation, the payment of a fine, compelled performance of community service, or some combination of these.

Personal Injury Lawsuits Are One Type of Civil Suit

In the specific context of an injury case, a civil lawsuit usually starts with the filing of a personal injury complaint in the local branch of your state’s civil court system. Common kinds of personal injury lawsuits include those stemming from car accidents, slip and fall incidents, defamation, medical malpractice, defective products, and intentional acts.

While the filing of a civil lawsuit is the first step in many personal injury cases, keep in mind that the vast majority of these cases will reach settlement well before a court-based trial takes place. And many injury claims are resolved through settlement negotiations before a lawsuit is even filed.

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