“A crime is an act or omission of an act in violation of a public law forbidding or commanding it.” Therefore, when a person commits a crime, he is prosecuted by the government and he could be subject to severe penalties such as imprisonment and/or fines. A crime violates a public duty, not just a private person. On the other hand, when a person commits a tort, he violates a private duty against a person, and thus is subject to penalties such as money damages or injunctions. The goal of an injunction is to prevent the tortious conduct from continuing.
There can be criminal liability for some torts in addition to civil liability. This is particularly true as it pertains to intentional torts. For instance, if a person is assaulted by someone, he can sue that person for damages under tort law, but he can also bring criminal charges against him as well. Another example of a tort that carries criminal penalties is conversion, which occurs when an employee steals property that his employer entrusted to him; the crime is called embezzlement. The employer could sue the employee for damages, but he could also bring criminal charges against him. Battery and false imprisonment are also torts for which there can be criminal liability in addition to the civil liability. In a criminal case, there is no plaintiff who is suing the defendant for committing the tort, but instead there is a prosecutor who is prosecuting the defendant for committing the crime.
There are certain steps that must occur in a tort civil lawsuit. A civil case begins with a complaint being filed. In a tort case, the complaint will detail the act for which the plaintiff is suing the defendant, and it will most likely be for money damages. Then service of process must occur, which involves attaching a complaint to a summons that is served on the defendant. The summons lets the defendant know that he is being sued. The summons is delivered to the defendant by an “officer” of the court. After process has been served, the defendant is able to respond with an answer, in which he responds to the allegations. He can also file a counterclaim, where he makes allegations against the plaintiff. Motions can be filed next, such as motions to dismiss or motions for summary judgment. Discovery then takes place. During discovery, plaintiffs and defendants try to gather information about each other through means such as requests for production of documents, depositions, and interrogatories. After discovery and any other pre-trial motions, the trial can take place. During the trial, opening arguments, direct examination and cross-examination of witnesses, and closing arguments take place. After the trial has concluded, either side can appeal the decision. For instance, the plaintiff may want to contest the amount of damages awarded to him because he feels that he deserves more.
There can be tactical reasons to bring a civil lawsuit against a defendant that has committed a tort, even if he has already been tried criminally for that same act. In a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the defendant is guilty based on the preponderance of the evidence. In a criminal case, the prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, which is a much higher standard. In other words, it is a lesser burden in civil court, so the plaintiff is much more likely to win his case. Therefore, a defendant could be found innocent in the criminal trial, but he could be found guilty in the civil trial for the same offense and have to pay damages. The most famous example of this is O.J. Simpson who was acquitted at the criminal trial for murder but was found guilty at a civil trial.
Although criminal liability for a tort is most likely to occur in the context of intentional torts, it is also possible that it could occur for unintentional torts as well. For example, wrongful death is a tort that occurs when a person is killed due to negligence on the part of the defendant. It is possible that a defendant could be found guilty of the tort of wrongful death and also be tried in criminal court for manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter and be found innocent.
A person who has committed any tort, especially an intentional one, needs to be mindful of the fact that he could possibly be tried criminally as well as civilly.