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3.2: Civil, Criminal, and Moral Wrongs

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    Civil Wrongs

    general damages (money). The plaintiff (the injured party) sues or brings a civil suit (files an action in court) against the defendant (the party that caused the harm). Plaintiffs can be individuals, businesses, classes of individuals (in a class action suit), or government entities. Defendants in civil actions can also be individuals, businesses, multinational corporations, governments, or state agencies.

    torts (personal injury claims), contracts, property or real estate disputes, family law (including divorces, adoptions, and child custody matters), intellectual property claims (including copyright, trademark, and patent claims), and trusts and estate laws (which covers wills and probate).

    punitive damages in addition to general damages. Plaintiffs may also bring civil suits called injunctive relief to stop or “enjoin” the defendant from continuing to act in a certain manner. Codes of the civil procedure set forth the rules to follow when suing the party who allegedly caused some type of private harm. These codes govern all the various types of civil actions.

    preponderance of the evidence. Another feature in a civil suit is that the defendant can cross-sue the plaintiff, claiming that the plaintiff is actually responsible for the harm.

    Criminal Wrongs

    Criminal Defendant Victim Examples
    Individual Self or with no particular victim Gambling or drug use,
    Individual Other individual(s) Assault, battery, theft
    Individual Business or government Trespass, welfare fraud
    Group of individuals Individual(s) Conspiracy to commit murder
    Group of individuals Government or no particular victim Riot, rout, disorderly conduct
    Business entity Individuals Fraud
    Business entity Government or no particular victim Fraud, pollution, tax evasion

    Criminal laws reflect a society’s moral and ethical beliefs. They govern how society, through its government agents, holds criminal wrongdoers accountable for their actions. Sanctions or remedies such as incarceration, fines, restitution, community service, and restorative justice program are used to express societal condemnation of the criminal’s behavior. Government attorneys prosecute, or file charges against, criminal defendants on behalf of society, not necessarily to remedy the harm suffered by any particular victim. The title of a criminal prosecution reflects this: “State of California v. Jones,” “The Commonwealth v. Jones,” or “People v. Jones.”

    In a criminal jury trial (a trial in which a group of people selected from the community decides whether the defendant is guilty of the crime charged) or a bench trial (a trial in which the judge decides whether the defendant is guilty or not) the prosecutor carries the burden of producing evidence that will convince the jury or judge beyond any reasonable doubt that the criminal defendant committed a violation of law that harmed society. To meet this burden, the prosecutor will call upon witnesses to testify and may also present physical evidence suggesting the defendant committed the crime. Just as a private individual may decide that it is not worth the time or effort to file a legal action, the state may decide not to use its resources to file criminal charges against a wrongdoer. A victim (a named injured party) cannot force the state to prosecute the wrongdoing. Rather, if there is an appropriate civil cause of action–for example, wrongful death–the injured party will need to file a civil suit as a plaintiff and seek monetary damages against the defendant.

    Moral Wrongs

    Moral wrongs differ from criminal wrongs. “Moral law attempts to perfect personal character, whereas criminal law, in general, is aimed at misbehavior that falls substantially below the norms of the community.” [1] There are no codes or statutes governing violations of moral laws in the United States.

    “The Witness” Exercise

    Overlap of Civil, Criminal, and Moral Wrongs

    Sometimes criminal law and civil law overlap and an individual’s action constitute both a violation of criminal law and civil law. For example, if Joe punches Sam in the face, Sam may sue Joe civilly for civil assault and battery, and the state may also prosecute Joe for punching Sam, a criminal assault and battery. Consider the case involving O.J. Simpson. Simpson was first prosecuted in 1994 for killing his ex-wife and her friend (the criminal charges of murder). After the criminal trial in which the jury acquitted Simpson, the Brown and Goldman families filed a wrongful death action against Simpson for killing Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. The civil jury found Simpson responsible and awarded compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $33.5 million dollars. Wrongful death is a type of tort. Torts involve injuries inflicted upon a person and are the types of civil claims or civil suits that most resemble criminal wrongs.

    Sometimes criminal behavior has no civil law counterpart. For example, the crime of possessing burglary tools does not have a civil law equivalent. Conversely, many civil actions do not violate criminal law. For example, civil suits for divorce, wills, or contracts do not have a corresponding criminal wrong. Even though there is certainly an overlap between criminal law and civil law, it is not a perfect overlap. Because there is no legal action that can be filed for committing a moral wrong, there really is not any overlap between criminal wrongs, civil wrongs, and moral wrongs.

    1. Gardner, T.J. (1985) Criminal Law: Principles and Cases (3rd ed., pp.7). West Publishing Company.

    This page titled 3.2: Civil, Criminal, and Moral Wrongs is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.