Understanding the difference between a tort and a crime (and when they overlap) helps you better grasp your next steps for justice.
What is the Difference Between a Tort and a Crime?
Crimes are popular legal topics. From true-crime podcasts to legal television dramas, most people have been exposed to criminal law in some format. Some may have even, unfortunately, experienced the criminal justice system firsthand.
A lesser-known area of law, albeit not a lesser one, is tort law. While the term may not be familiar, you have undoubtedly been exposed to countless torts throughout your life. It is especially important to know the difference between a tort and a crime if you’ve been the victim of an injustice and are wondering what your next steps are.
If you’ve been wondering, “how is tort law different from criminal law?”, “who can file a tort?” or “what should I do if I think I’ve been the victim of a tort?” we’re here for you. Below, we’ll walk you through the differences between the two, so you can feel more confident about your next steps towards justice.
Basic Definitions: Tort vs. Crime
There are two main kinds of legal cases: civil cases and criminal cases. Civil cases involve conflicts between people or institutions.
A tort case is a type of civil case. A tort claim can be filed by a person when another party causes injury. It is even possible for a group of individuals to file a mass tort claim against another party.
In a criminal case, it is the government that is prosecuting individuals or institutions. The action is brought when the government believes that a party has committed a crime (an illegal act).
While civil law and criminal law are two different areas of law, that does not necessarily mean that they cannot overlap. In fact, it is possible for a person’s tortious act also to be a criminal act. Understanding the difference between a tort and a crime as well as how the two can overlap is important for anyone seeking justice.
Are Torts Crimes?
Before we can begin discussing crime vs. tort, it is important to understand each of the legal concepts.
- An intentional tort is when a party purposely does something that injures another.
- A negligence tort occurs when a party has a duty to someone else and fails to uphold that duty and as a result, harm or injury occurs.
- A strict liability tort allows a party to hold another party liable for their actions regardless of whether or not they actively decided to do something.
Conversely, a crime is an action or inaction that violates the laws of a state or federal government. Crimes can be classified as either felonies or misdemeanors. Felonies are generally punishable by imprisonment for more than a year. Most crimes require that the government prove a physical act and a mental state.
So when thinking about the question “are torts crimes?” the answer can be a bit complicated. The straightforward answer is, “no, torts are not crimes.” However, it is possible for an act to be both a tort and a crime. How and when this overlap occurs is discussed in the next section.
Can a Tort be a Crime?
As stated above, torts are not crimes. However, it is possible for a tortious act also to be a crime. This means that a person may be held accountable in both civil court and criminal court.
Earlier, we mentioned that there are three main types of torts. Here, we will explain how the action underlying each can potentially be both a tort and a crime.
Battery is an example of an intentional tort that can also be a crime:
- In tort law, battery is the intentional causation of harmful or offensive contact with another person without that person’s consent.
- In criminal law, battery is a physical act that results in harmful or offensive contact with another person without that person’s consent.
If someone punches you in the face without your permission, you may be able to sue them for damages in civil court. The state may also choose to press charges in criminal court against the person who hit you.
An example of a negligent tort that can also be a crime is when a driver runs a stop sign and injures another person. Running a stop sign is considered negligence per se. This means that the person who was injured in the car accident may be able to sue the negligent driver for damages for their injuries. Running a stop sign is also against the law, which means the driver may face criminal penalties as well.
The third type of tort is strict liability. Strict liability can apply in dog bite cases, depending on the state. In some states, you may be able to sue the dog owner under the theory of strict liability if you are bit by the owner’s dog. This is because even if the owner didn’t bite you themselves, they own the dog that did and are therefore responsible for the dog’s behavior. Under the law, they should have followed precautions to make sure that the dog could not have been able to bite anyone. Depending on the severity of the injury and other state laws, the owner may face criminal penalties as well.
How is Tort Law Different From Criminal Law?
Tort law and criminal law differ in many aspects. The legal process for tort law and criminal law differ in many ways. The cases must meet different standards of proof, and the potential consequences are vastly different.
In tort law, the injured party is seeking damages. Damages are financial compensation for the injury. If you bring a tort action against someone, damages are the primary form of relief you are seeking.
In criminal law, the state or federal government is seeking punishment. Punishment can come in the form of incarceration or fines. There are a number of theories justifying punishment for criminal acts, including deterrence, retribution, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.
If you sue someone for a tort, they will not face jail time. If the state prosecutes someone for a criminal act, they can be incarcerated.
No Matter the Why or How We’re Here to Help
If you have been injured, you deserve justice. Justice can come in many forms and is different for everyone. The justice available to you through the legal system will vary depending on whether you have been the victim of a tort or a crime, or both.
If you feel that you have been the victim of a tort or crime, the Guardian Legal Network is here for you. We provide victims with the resources they need to get the justice they deserve. Contact us today by filling out our online form or calling us at (855) 734-0374.
- “How Courts Work.” American Bar Association, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_related_education_network/how_courts_work/cases/. Accessed July 15, 2022.
- “Battery.” Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/battery. Accessed July 15, 2022.