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Civil or Criminal?

Civil cases usually involve disputes over money, property, or constitutional rights. A person, company, or government agency may file a civil lawsuit.

Civil Cases

A civil case begins when a person, business, or government agency claims that another person, business, or government agency failed to meet a legal duty. A civil case focuses on liability and damages.

Lawyers hard at work researching a civil case

Damages: In general, a losing defendant in a civil case pays the plaintiff for its losses.

What is liability? Liability is the legal responsibility for one’s acts or omissions.


Civil case example | Maria Baker is passed over for promotion at work in favor of a less-qualified man. She may choose to file a civil lawsuit against her employer.



What is litigation? Litigation is a case , controversy, or lawsuit.

Criminal case example | In a kidnapping case, the government prosecutes the kidnapper. The kidnapped victim is not a party to the criminal trial (but may be a party to a civil trial if the victim sues for damages.)

Criminal cases allege a violation of a federal criminal law. In criminal cases, the government always files the criminal action.

Criminal Cases

Criminal cases involve actions that are harmful to society or individualsmurder, theft, robbery, kidnapping, rape, assault, arson, tax evasion…

Television news, shows, and movies often focus on criminal law. It is not the victim’s responsibility to bring a criminal case to court. The government brings these cases.

When a person is charged with a federal crime, the United States Attorney’s Office is the prosecutor in federal court. The State’s Attorney’s Office prosecutes state crimes in state court.

In some criminal cases, there may not be a specific victim. Both the state and federal government prosecute people for sale and distribution of illegal drugs.

Punishment: When a judge or jury determines that an individual committed a crime, the sentence imposed by the court may include paying a fine, imprisonment, probation, or a combination of these three.