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What Is the Difference Between a Tort and Criminal Law?

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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

Schmidt & Clark, LLP is not currently accepting these types of cases and has posted this content for information purposes only. We encourage you to seek a qualified attorney, if you feel you might have a case.

Tort and crime are among the most confusing legal jargon terms. Many people use them interchangeably when that shouldn’t be the case. The two terms are different, and they have different consequences. 

Schmidt & Clark lawyers have successfully prosecuted both crime and tort cases for close to three decades. Our lawyers will explain everything about these two terms, including their meaning and differences.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • A tort occurs when law-abiding citizens suffer injury or harm because of another person’s actions. 
  • Crime is an illegal, harmful, threatening, and intentional act in the legal world. Criminal activity includes committed assault, murder, robbery, and more.
  • There are several key differences between torts and crimes.

What is a Tort?

Writing signature on a form with money

A tort is a wrongful act, such as a breach of someone’s civil rights. It happens when a person’s negligence causes damages to another person or their property. 

A tort is often defined as wrongdoing for which the law provides a remedy, most often in the form of money.

“A tort is an act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm to another and amounts to a civil wrong for which courts impose liability. In the context of torts, "injury" describes the invasion of any legal right, whereas "harm" describes a loss or detriment in fact that an individual suffers.” Cornell Legal Information Institute

Physical abuse on womanThere are several kinds of torts:

  • Intentional torts — When wrongdoing is done on purpose, such as character defamation or an assault.
  • Unintentional torts — When wrongdoing isn’t done on purpose but is a result of carelessness, for example, injury by a faulty product.
  • Negligent torts — The most common kind of torts. Someone sustains bodily harm because a person behaves carelessly. Even though a person didn’t intend to harm the other party, they are still held responsible for their actions. 
  • Strict liability torts — There may be no fault at all, but the defendant has to cover the victim’s losses even if they weren’t careless and didn’t want to cause harm.

Intentional torts occur when there’s wrongful conduct done as a deliberate act. These torts are often confused with a crime because they coincide with criminal behavior.

However, if the plaintiff decides to sue for damages, the case is brought to a civil court, where it’s considered a civil offense and not a criminal one. Some tort examples include car accidents, medical malpractice, workplace accidents, and faulty products

Under tort law, tort cases happen in civil court, with the accused (the defendant) and the injured party (the plaintiff). The plaintiff brings the charges, and if the defendant loses, he has to pay damages to the plaintiff.

What is a Crime?

Man on handcuffs lying down the table A crime is a harmful or threatening offense that the state or federal government sees as illegal [1]. Crime is explicitly defined by existing laws, and it is prohibited and punishable.

Unlike torts, where one person commits acts against the individual, crime affects society negatively, and the punishment is fine or imprisonment.

Under the US legal system, a criminal case is a criminal proceeding where the accused is called the defendant. The victim is the person who’s been hurt.

The plaintiff is usually a government body. In a criminal court, the government brings the charges, and if the defendant loses, they must serve a sentence, pay a fine, or both.

The criminal statutes of the jurisdiction where the person resides determine if a certain act or behavior is seen as a crime.

Here’s the criminal prosecution process:

  • The police are informed about the crime.
  • The police investigate by inspecting the crime location and talking to witnesses.
  • The police search for the suspect when they have enough evidence.
  • When the suspect is found, they are arrested.
  • The suspect is prosecuted in court.

Pointing at someone in the faceMost common examples of crime include:

  • Battery 
  • Assault 
  • Murder
  • Robbery
  • Fraud
  • Extortion

6 Differences Between Torts and Crimes

The biggest differences between torts and crimes are:

  1. Old books gavel and handcuffs on top of table A tort is wrongdoing committed against one individual, which causes harm and results in a civil wrong. A crime is an illegal act that affects society as a whole and results in fines or imprisonment.
  2. Tort law is uncodified, which means the court decides on monetary compensation for the wrongs done to the claimant. State legal system has a criminal code for crimes, and there are specific legal guidelines for crimes.
  3. In a tort case, the defendant decides whether to take the intentional tort to court. A criminal act is always tried in court under criminal law.
  4. Tort’s main purpose is to provide compensatory damages to the victim, such as lost wages, medical bills, punitive damages, and more. The main purpose of criminal law is to punish criminal activity and maintain order in society.
  5. In a tort case, the claimant is responsible for proving the defendant is guilty under civil law. There’s a presumption of innocence in a criminal case, and the prosecution has to prove the guilt.
  6. If the defendant is found guilty in tort claims, they have to compensate the injured party for the damages. If the defendant is found guilty of a crime, they are sentenced to the punishment assigned by the court.

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Is Tort a Criminal Wrong?

No, a tort isn’t a criminal wrong, but it’s seen as a civil wrong. A tort isn’t criminal wrongdoing but an act that hampers individual parties, such as negligence.

Get Help From Experienced Lawyers

Being a victim of harmful and damaging behavior is not only traumatizing but can leave serious consequences. In general, a tort is less serious than a crime, and it can get you damages for the injuries sustained.

However, if a defendant is found guilty in a criminal trial, a victim doesn't get damages. The defendant goes to prison, as the main goal is to protect society. No matter what kind of injuries you sustained, Schmidt & Clark lawyers are here to help. Our lawyers are experienced in dealing with personal injury law cases. 

Contact us as soon as today to get professional help for your case.