In the United States, there are two law systems in place to punish wrongdoing, and/or compensate victims of crime: criminal law, and civil law. Civil law addresses behavior that causes some sort of injury to an individual or other private party through lawsuits. The consequences for those found liable for these acts are generally monetary; however, penalties for civil offenses can also include court-ordered remedies, such as injunctions or restraining orders. 

Another way to differentiate the two systems would be that civil law most frequently addresses disputes between private parties. Criminal law addresses crimes; or, behaviors which break the rules that society has created and intends to distribute punishment when those rules are broken. Criminal law generally imposes heavier sentences on the guilty, ranging from community service to the death penalty.

Similar to criminal law, violations of civil law can also result in heavy fines or other consequences. However, the punishments for those violations are generally considerably lighter when compared to criminal law. Because of this, criminal law often provides additional protections for the defendant. An example of this would be the reading of Miranda Rights before a criminal interrogation. Another difference would be how the burden of proof for guilt is higher in criminal law cases than it would be in a civil liability lawsuit.

The term legal liability refers to being responsible for an action or debt. Civil liability, then, means to be responsible for debts or wrongdoing against another private party. In civil liability suits, there are a number of defenses that may be used to either shift or deny responsibility. Because the legal standard for guilt is lower when compared to criminal liability, the defenses used in a civil suit must be stronger than those of a criminal suit in order to avoid a verdict of guilt. 

How Serious Is Civil Liability, and How Long Can You Go to Jail for Civil Liabilities?   

Civil liability cases most commonly involve the following:

  • Personal injury disputes, such as slip and fall incidents, or motor vehicle accidents;
  • Family law issues, such as divorce, child custody and support, or adoption;
  • Property and real estate issues, such as complaints regarding pre existing easements or property boundary disputes between neighbors; and
  • Contracts, business, and intellectual property disputes. These generally involve a dispute regarding the terms of an agreement, or involving instances in which one party has breached the terms of the contract or agreement.

Some specific examples of civil law violations include, but may not be limited to:

  • Various forms of defamation, such as libel and/or slander;
  • Issues associated with breach of contract;
  • Breach of fiduciary duty
  • Negligence resulting in injury or wrongful death;
  • Landlord and tenant issues; and
  • Property damage, or a breach of a person’s duty of care.

Whether a person can go to jail in civil liability cases varies. Generally speaking, civil cases and their resulting consequences do not include jail time. However, you can be arrested for being in contempt of court. What this means is that you could go to jail for ignoring the court’s summons, or for failing to do as you are ordered by the court.

What Are Some Examples of Civil Liability?  

Generally speaking, there are three different types of civil liabilities:

  1. Intentional Torts: An intentional tort is an intentional act that is committed by a defendant against another individual. The defendant specifically carried out this act to cause harm to the other person. The victim will frequently bring a claim against the defendant in order to recover damages for their injuries. Based on the type of intentional tort, as well as the laws of a state and the facts of a case, the defendant may be able to bring a defense against the victim’s claim;
  2. Negligence Torts: Also referred to as unintentional torts, many personal injury cases are based on the legal theory of negligence. When a person owes others a duty to act reasonably, and fails to do so, the injured party may be able to file a civil liability claim. Civil liability examples of unintentional torts include car accidents, slip and fall accidents, medical malpractice, and dog bite cases; and
  3. Strict Liability Torts: Strict liability holds a party responsible for their actions or products, without the plaintiff needing to prove negligence or fault. An example of this would be how when someone partakes in ultrahazardous activities such as keeping wild animals or making defective products, they may be held liable if someone else is injured. Strict liability crimes are unique in that they would still hold the defendant responsible even if the defendant took all necessary precautions and adhered to safety requirements. This is because due to the nature of the activity, the defendant should reasonably be able to foresee that a person could be harmed by it.

What Are Defenses to Civil Liability?

The following examples of defenses are absolute negative defenses; meaning, they defeat the claim by undermining and denying an important aspect of the case:

  • Contributory Negligence: The defendant claims that the injured party contributed to their own harm; thus, the defendant should not be held liable;
  • Comparative Negligence: If a court determines that more than one party is liable for the harm caused, they may split the liability among the various liable parties. An example of this would be how one party may be responsible for 60% of the damages, while another party will be liable for the remaining 40%;
  • Assumption of Risk: If the court determines that the injured party engaged in a dangerous activity, they may find that they assumed the risks associated with the dangerous activity and are responsible for their injury. This defense is used infrequently due to the development of the comparative negligence doctrine;
  • Limitation on Liability Clauses: Many contracts contain limitation on liability clauses, which protect one of the parties from liability in the event of injury or harm to the other party. The existence of such a clause could serve as a defense;
  • Act of God: Defendants cannot be held responsible for events outside of human control, such as natural disasters; and/or
  • Superseding Cause: The defendant is not responsible because the defendant did not cause the injury; someone or something else did.

Other civil liability defenses are affirmative defenses; meaning, the events are true, but there is an alternative explanation as to what happened such that the defendant is not responsible:

  • Plaintiff’s Harm Is Limited: If the plaintiff cannot show that they were injured, there is no case. Similarly, if the plaintiff fails to relieve the harm when able, then the defendant cannot be held responsible for that; and
  • Intervening Cause: The plaintiff’s injuries were made worse by events which happened after the first accident. An example of this would be if someone twists their ankle because of a slip and fall at a store, but then breaks their leg a few days later when they fall down in their own home. They cannot hold the store responsible for their broken leg, although they can hold them responsible for causing the initial injury. 

Do I Need a Lawyer to Claim One of these Defenses?

If you are involved in a civil liability case, either as the plaintiff or the defendant, you should consult with an experienced and local civil lawyer. An attorney can help you understand your rights and legal options according to your state’s specific laws regarding civil liability. Additionally, your civil lawyer will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.