Differences Between Civil Lawsuits vs. Criminal Lawsuits

There are two different bodies of law within the United States justice system: civil and criminal. A civil case is brought when someone commits a tort, or wrongdoing, that results in injury or harm to another person. A criminal case is filed when someone breaks a law or commits a criminal offense. Understanding this difference is important if you are the victim of a crime, such as physical assault or sexual abuse, as you could be involved in both types of lawsuits.

What Is the Purpose of a Civil Lawsuit vs. a Criminal Lawsuit?

The main difference between a civil and criminal lawsuit is the purpose, or end goal, of the claim. The civil justice system aims to make an injured victim whole again after being harmed by the wrongful acts of a defendant. It does this by requiring the defendant to pay the plaintiff financial compensation for compensable losses suffered. These may include:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Therapy costs and psychiatric care 
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • Lost wages and earning capacity
  • Property damage
  • Out-of-pocket costs, including attorney’s fees
  • Physical pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress, mental anguish and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Diminished quality or enjoyment of life
  • The loss of a loved one’s life 

Rather than reimbursing a victim for losses suffered, a criminal lawsuit aims to punish the defendant for breaking the law. If a defendant is found guilty of a crime such as rape, for example, he or she will receive a criminal sentence that may include jail time, expensive fines, mandatory community service, probation and other penalties to teach the defendant a lesson and warn others in the community against committing similar crimes.

Can a Defendant Face Both Types of Lawsuits?

Yes. It is possible for a single defendant to face both a civil lawsuit and criminal charges for his or her actions. In most cases, a defendant faces criminal charges first and then acts as a defendant in a civil lawsuit. Another possibility is holding an institution vicariously responsible, or liable, for its part in allowing a crime to take place. 

For example, if a school in Kansas should have prevented the sexual abuse of a student, such as with better employee background checks or child supervision, the school could be vicariously liable. Holding an institution liable can improve the safety of others in the future. It can also result in greater financial compensation awarded to the plaintiff, as an individual defendant may not have as much capital or insurance.

What Is the Legal Process for Each Type of Case?

Another key difference between the civil and criminal justice system is the legal process. A civil lawsuit is initiated with the victim submitting the required forms in the county’s civil courthouse. A criminal lawsuit is initiated by city prosecutors. 

During a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence. This is less the burden of proof in a criminal case, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. A preponderance of the evidence means enough evidence to show that the defendant is more likely guilty of committing the tort than not.

While the victim of a crime can participate in a criminal case, it is not the victim’s job to meet the burden of proof. Instead, this is the prosecutor’s responsibility. In a civil case, however, the plaintiff or plaintiff’s attorney is responsible for proving the required elements of the suit.

Different Statutes of Limitations in Kansas

Finally, different statutes of limitations, or filing deadlines, apply to a civil vs. criminal case. A Kansas sexual assault case, for example, must be filed within three years of the victim’s 18th birthday or discovery of the sexual abuse, or one year from the date that DNA testing establishes the defendant (whichever comes later). However, the statute of limitations on criminal sexual assault charges is 10 years from the victim’s 18th birthday or the discovery of the sexual abuse. There is no criminal statute of limitations on rape in Kansas.

We are open and available during Covid-19 via Zoom/video chat or in-person. Contact us if you have any questions. Close