Mauricio Celis, attorney at Celis Law Group says “From assault to fraud to driving under the influence, there are many wrongful acts that are both crimes and torts. However, crime victims may not continuously pursue tort claims against their assailants—whether because the assailant is likely to be judgment-proof or because they can’t be identified at all.”
A civil tort claim will proceed much differently than a criminal case, even though these claims may stem from the same set of events. Knowing the differences between tort and criminal law can help you decide what type of claim(s) to pursue.
What is a Tort?
A tort is a type of civil legal claim alleging that the defendant has injured or interfered with the plaintiff’s person or property. There are many broad categories of torts, including:
- Product liability
- Slip-and-fall cases
- Auto accidents
- Premises liability
- Intentional torts like assault, battery, and false imprisonment
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
“Not all torts are crimes; some, including auto accidents, may result only from negligence,” says Mauricio Celis. “This means that the burden of proof in a tort claim is lower than the burden of proof of guilt in a criminal case.”
Plaintiffs in tort claims also have a great deal of control over how the case proceeds, which legal arguments are made, and whether settlement offers are extended or accepted.
Defendants in a tort claim may include individuals, manufacturers, retailers, and state, local, or federal government agencies.
What is a Crime?
A crime is a wrongful act that has been classified as a criminal act by the state or federal government. Criminal cases are brought by the government, not by the victim. If a defendant is found guilty of a crime, they may be sentenced to serve time in prison and assessed fines and fees (payment to the government) and/or restitution (payment to the victim(s)).
Although the victim of a crime may have the option to refrain from pressing charges against their assailant, this isn’t always true. The government can pursue criminal charges regardless of whether the victim consents to charges or cooperates with the criminal case. The victim of a crime may not have much control over how a criminal case proceeds.
Infractions and ordinance violations aren’t squarely crimes but may still fall under the tort umbrella—for example, someone who receives a citation for violating a noise ordinance or illegally dumping trash can be sued in civil court if these actions cause harm to their neighbors.
How Do Torts and Criminal Law Intersect?
Most criminal acts, including acts of violence, are torts. But the inverse isn’t true; while a tort can be a crime, it doesn’t have to be, and a wrongdoer may be held civilly liable for a tort even if they’re never criminally charged or convicted. Criminal law is concerned with the defendant’s overall impact on society, while tort law is concerned with compensating the victim for their losses.
The main differentiating factor between torts and crimes is intent. Most criminal acts require a certain amount of intent, known as mens rea—if the prosecutor can’t prove that the defendant acted with the intent to cause harm, the defendant can’t be convicted. (There are some exceptions, such as statutory rape—but those are more comparable to strict liability torts, discussed in more detail below.)
However, many tort claims can be maintained if the defendant acted intentionally or negligently. Negligence is defined as failing to use reasonable care to avoid impacting the plaintiff.
Some torts are “strict liability” torts, which means that intent is irrelevant. Product liability lawsuits are one of the most common types of strict liability torts, and a manufacturer or retailer can be held liable regardless of their knowledge or intent in distributing defective products.
What Damages Are Available in Tort and Criminal Cases?
Some criminal courts will require a defendant to pay restitution—compensation payable to the victim and any others impacted by the defendant’s criminal acts.
But collecting restitution judgments can be challenging, especially if the defendant is incarcerated or has few assets. Criminal courts are also less concerned than civil courts about whether the amount of restitution awarded reflects the victim’s actual damages; in many cases, restitution judgments may not be enough to make the victim whole.
For tort claims, there are two types of damages available: compensatory and punitive.
- Compensatory damages are the actual damages suffered—medical bills, future medical expenses, lost wages, loss of future earning potential, property damage, and damages for emotional distress. Plaintiffs will need to provide evidence supporting the out-of-pocket costs they’ve paid so far as well as future expenses they’re likely to incur.
- Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant and discourage others from engaging in similar conduct. Punitive damages aren’t assessed in all cases; they usually require some showing that the defendant’s actions were especially egregious, wanton, or wicked. The number of punitive damages that can be recovered in any particular case may be limited under state law.
If a plaintiff prevails, they’ll receive a judgment for compensatory and/or punitive damages. They can then collect on this judgment by garnishing the defendant’s wages or even seizing their assets.
About Mauricio Celis
Mauricio Celis is a lawyer practicing in both Mexico and the United States and is a founding partner of M&M Consultores Juridicos, S.A. de C.V., and Celis Law Group.
Celis operates his law practice the way he conducts his entire life—with honor, courage, and commitment. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he worked as a legal investigator and in other positions in various U.S. law firms before completing his own licensure requirements to practice law.
He holds a master’s degree of Science in Technology Commercialization from the University of Texas at Austin as well as an LL.M. in International and Comparative Law from Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University.
To learn more about Mauricio Celis, you can visit his Linkedin profile.