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- Civil law is a body of law that determines private rights and liabilities, as distinguished from criminal law. Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases deal with acts considered to be harmful to society as a whole. A civil lawsuit is a lawsuit based on non-criminal statutes, such as disputes involving accidents or contracts. Civil suits typically seek to recover money damages or allow/disallow certain acts, rather than to imprison or punish a person. Because of the potential loss of liberty and personal rights involved, the standard of evidence in criminal cases is higher than in civil cases.
- A civil lawsuit involves allegations of a private wrong such as a breach of contract, encroachment, or negligence; or enforcement of civil remedies such as compensation, damages, Also called civil action, civil proceedings, or civil suit. Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole. Below is a comparison of the key differences between civil and criminal cases.
- A civil case begins when a person or entity (such as a corporation or the government), called the plaintiff, claims that another person or entity (the defendant) has failed to carry out a legal duty owed to the plaintiff. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are also referred to as “parties” or “litigants.” The plaintiff may ask the court to tell the defendant to fulfill the duty, or make compensation for the harm done, or both. Legal duties include respecting rights established under the Constitution or under federal or state law.
- An example of a civil case in a state court would be if a citizen (including a corporation) sued another citizen for not living up to a contract.
- For example, if a lumberyard enters a contract to sell a specific amount of wood to a carpenter for an agreed-upon price and then fails to deliver the wood, forcing the carpenter to buy it elsewhere at a higher price, the carpenter might sue the lumberyard to pay the extra costs incurred because of the lumberyard’s failure to deliver; these costs are called damages.
- Individuals, corporations, and the government agencies can also bring civil suits in court claiming violations of individual or state rights. For example, the government can sue a hospital for over-charging customers, which is regulated by the Department of Health. An individual could sue a local police department for violation of his or her constitutional rights–for example, the right to assemble peacefully.
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