Civil Liability

If you intentionally or even mistakenly injure someone or damage someone's property, you could end up being responsible for paying for the other person's losses.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law
Updated July 27, 2020

A person who suffers damage or injury from the bad acts and even accidents of others can seek financial remedies in civil court. This article discusses civil liability. For information about criminal liability, see our article on Criminal Liability.

Civil vs. Criminal Actions

A civil action is a lawsuit filed by a private person (not the government) against another private person. Usually, these lawsuits seek monetary damages for injury or loss that the party suing (the plaintiff) alleges the party sued (the defendant) caused. A defendant who loses in a civil action does not face the risk of prison or fines, like in criminal court. A classic civil lawsuit would be a lawsuit by a person injured in a vehicle accident against the driver of the vehicle who caused the accident.

By contrast, a criminal action is a prosecution by the government (local, state, or federal) of an individual for violating a provision of the criminal code. The penalty that a defendant faces in a criminal action may include incarceration, a fine, or other terms.

Civil actions are categorized according to the type of injury or damage involved. They include "torts" (a French word that simply means "wrong," such as personal injury and wrongful death), contract disputes, product liability claims, and business disputes (such as patent infringement claims). See the sections below for more on these types of civil cases.

Civil Liability: Types of Actions

As used in the term "civil liability," the word liability means responsibility for the harm alleged by the plaintiff and the damages suffered. A person found liable in a civil action, upon a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, must pay whatever monetary damages the jury (or sometimes the judge) awards to the plaintiff.

Breach of Contract: Breaking a Promise

A huge portion of the civil lawsuits filed in the United States arise out of disputes between parties to a contract. Generally speaking, the plaintiff in such actions alleges that the defendant has failed to comply with some term(s) of the contract, causing damage to the plaintiff. For example, disputes between landlords and tenants often involve a question of who breached (didn't follow) the lease, which is a contract.

Intentional Torts: Purposeful Acts

Some civil wrongs result from intentionally "bad" acts by defendants, such as intentional misrepresentation (fraud), defamation (damaging lies), and employment discrimination. In these cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant purposely engaged in certain conduct, for example, by offering evidence that the defendant had spread false rumors that the plaintiff had engaged in a crime, knowing that the rumors were false.

Negligence Liability: Accidents

Not all civil actions involve intentional conduct by the defendant. Plaintiffs in many civil cases allege that the defendant acted negligently and that this negligence caused their injuries or loss. In such cases, the plaintiff need not show any intent at all on the part of the defendant. But, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty to exercise due care in taking certain actions and failed to take such care. For instance, a customer brings a personal injury lawsuit against a shop owner who didn't promptly take care of a spill that caused a customer to slip and injure herself.

Civil Liability: Types of Liability

Generally, under the law, you are responsible for your own intentional or negligent actions. But sometimes the law makes you liable for unintended consequences or the actions of others.

Strict Liability

In certain cases, a plaintiff will win if she proves that the defendant simply engaged in a particular act, regardless of any actual fault or even negligence. Product liability lawsuits involving defective products are often subject to a strict liability standard. In such cases, a manufacturer places a product in the market knowing that consumers will use it "without inspection for defects" and is held strictly liable for any injuries that result from defects in the product. (Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc.) This means that the injured party doesn't need to show carelessness, let alone an intent to cause injury.

Courts have reasoned that it is fair to hold manufacturers strictly liable for defective products, because public policy is best served by assigning responsibility where it will be most effective in reducing the potential for harm. Manufacturers are in the best position to both address defects in their products and absorb the cost to society of such defects (by spreading it out among all purchasers).

Strict liability may also be imposed for injuries or damage caused by extremely hazardous activities and certain other torts.

Vicarious Liability

At times, the law imposes responsibility for civil wrongs on people or entities other than those actually engaging in the conduct that led to injury or damage. This is called vicarious liability. For example, under federal (and some state) law, an employer may be held vicariously liable for an employee's sexual harassment of another employee, if the employer knew about the harassment and failed to address it effectively. Parents may be found liable for the acts of their minor children in some states (for more information, see our article on Parent's Civil Liability for a Child's Acts). Such liability is based on a theory that certain parties (employers, parents) have authority over, and a duty to control, certain other parties (subordinates, children).

Civil Liability: Types of Damages

As mentioned above, generally, a defendant in a civil action faces a financial penalty—money damages (except in the rare cases where a court awards injunctive relief, as mentioned below). An award in a civil action might include:

  • reimbursement of monies the plaintiff lost due to the defendant's actions
  • compensation for property damage caused by the defendant
  • reimbursement of monies due to the plaintiff for the defendant's breach of a contract
  • reimbursement of medical expenses for injuries caused by the defendant
  • compensation for pain and suffering (also called "emotional distress damages")
  • in some intentional tort cases (such as employment discrimination), punitive damages to punish the defendant and deter others, or
  • payment of the winning party's attorney's fees.

The plaintiff must prove the losses sought in damages, often through evidence such as hospital bills, repair costs, or income loss. In cases involving emotional distress or future losses, a plaintiff might need to bring in expert witnesses, such as economists or a psychiatrist.

Plaintiffs may seek what is known as injunctive relief in addition to monetary damages in certain cases. An injunction is a court order directing the defendant to take or stop taking some action. For example, a court may order a company to "cease and desist" infringing on the patent of another company, as well as award monetary damages to be paid by the defendant company to the plaintiff company.

Ask an Expert

Civil liability covers a lot of territory depending on what happened, by whom, and in what state. If you have questions about a particular tort or civil action, contact a lawyer with experience in personal injury or other civil litigation in your area.

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