Crime vs. Tort: What’s the Difference?

Crime vs. Tort - What's the Difference?

For society to function in an orderly way, lawmakers pass laws designed to help people stay safe. In most cases of violating the law, it can lead to criminal charges being brought against you. In some cases, a crime can also cause harm to another person.

However, not all actions that cause harm to another person are classified as crimes. For example, if you strike another vehicle while you’re driving, you might injure the other motorist, but you probably won’t be charged with a criminal act. Instead, you could be sued under a theory of negligence, which is known as a tort — or civil wrong.

It’s also possible for the same action to qualify as both a crime and a tort. In this case, the person who is accused of the wrongful action could be charged with a crime in criminal court and also sued for monetary compensation in civil court.

How Torts and Crimes Are Different

While it can sometimes be easy to tell the difference between a crime and a tort, some actions fall into a gray area. For example, someone who sells illegal drugs to another person has committed a crime. Likewise, an individual who murders another person will be charged with a crime. These are both clear examples of serious criminal acts that result in an arrest and prosecution in the criminal justice system.

But what about a car accident resulting in another person’s death? In this situation, it’s possible for the driver who caused the accident to be sued for wrongful death, which is a tort. However, it’s also possible for the person to also face criminal prosecution in the criminal justice system. In this type of case, a single action can be both a tort and a crime simultaneously.

It’s also true to say that not every fatal car accident results in criminal charges. Depending on the facts of the case, the prosecutor may decide they don’t have enough evidence to file criminal charges against a motorist or other party responsible for causing the accident.

In the civil system, the person who carried out the tort is the defendant and the person bringing the claim against them is known as the plaintiff. If the plaintiff’s case is successful, the defendant must pay monetary damages to the plaintiff, but the defendant doesn’t go to jail.

The difference in a criminal case is the person accused of a crime is a defendant and the government is the plaintiff. This is why you will usually see criminal cases styled as State v. Name of Defendant. If the government obtains a conviction against the defendant, the defendant could spend time in jail, pay fines or be sentenced to another form of punishment.

The Burden of Proof in Civil vs. Criminal Cases

One of the main differences between civil and criminal cases is the burden of proof required for one side to prevail over the other.

In civil cases, including tort cases, the most common burden of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence.” This is a lower standard than the burden of proof used in criminal cases, and it’s easier for the parties involved to achieve this standard. In some civil cases, the burden of proof is sometimes “clear and convincing evidence.”

In criminal cases, the burden of proof is much higher. To secure a conviction, the government must prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means the judge or jury must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the alleged crime or crimes. If the prosecution can’t meet this burden, the defendant can’t be convicted of a crime.

What If You Face Both Types of Cases at the Same Time?

It’s possible for a person to face a lawsuit in civil court and criminal charges stemming from the same underlying event. In fact, they may even find themselves involved in both types of cases at the same time. When this occurs, people often wonder which case happens first, or if they’re required to take on both cases simultaneously.

If you are sued while you’re facing criminal prosecution, it’s likely that the civil case will take a backseat to your criminal case. In most cases, a criminal defense lawyer will file a motion in the civil court, asking the court to temporarily stay the case until the criminal case is resolved. The reason for this is because evidence introduced in the civil case could have an impact on the criminal case. If this impact is prejudicial toward the defendant, it could compromise the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Anyone facing criminal prosecution or a combined civil and criminal case should speak to an experienced Dallas criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Both civil and criminal cases can be overwhelming. A knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer in Dallas can help you approach your case with confidence. Call the Broden & Mickelsen, LLP today to discuss your case.

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Broden & Mickelsen, LLP
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Prior results cannot and do not guarantee or predict a similar outcome with respect to any future case.



Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.