Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole. Below is a comparison of the key differences between civil and criminal cases.
A civil case begins when a person or entity (such as a corporation or the government), called the plaintiff, claims that another person or entity (the defendant) has failed to carry out a legal duty owed to the plaintiff. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are also referred to as "parties" or "litigants." The plaintiff may ask the court to tell the defendant to fulfill the duty, or make compensation for the harm done, or both. Legal duties include respecting rights established under the Constitution or under federal or state law.
Civil suits are brought in both state and federal courts. An example of a civil case in a state court would be if a citizen (including a corporation) sued another citizen for not living up to a contract.
For example, if a lumberyard enters a contract to sell a specific amount of wood to a carpenter for an agreed-upon price and then fails to deliver the wood, forcing the carpenter to buy it elsewhere at a higher price, the carpenter might sue the lumberyard to pay the extra costs incurred because of the lumberyard's failure to deliver; these costs are called damages. If these parties were from different states, however, then that suit could be brought in federal court under diversity jurisdiction if the amount in question exceeded the minimum required by statute ($75,000).
Individuals, corporations, and the federal government can also bring civil suits in federal court claiming violations of federal statutes or constitutional rights. For example, the federal government can sue a hospital for overbilling Medicare and Medicaid, a violation of a federal statute. An individual could sue a local police department for violation of his or her constitutional rights--for example, the right to assemble peacefully.
A person accused of a crime is generally charged in a formal accusation called an indictment (for felonies or serious crimes) or information (for misdemeanors). The government, on behalf of the people of the United States, prosecutes the case through the United States Attorney's Office if the person is charged with a federal crime. A state's attorney's office prosecutes state crimes.
It is not the victim's responsibility to bring a criminal case. In a kidnapping case, for instance, the government would prosecute the kidnapper; the victim would not be a party to the action.
In some criminal cases, there may not be a specific victim. For example, state governments arrest and prosecute people accused of violating laws against driving while intoxicated because society regards that as a serious offense that can result in harm to others.
When a court determines that an individual committed a crime, that person will receive a sentence. The sentence may be an order to pay a monetary penalty (a fine and/or restitution to the victim), imprisonment, or supervision in the community (by a court employee called a U.S. probation officer if a federal crime), or some combination of these three things.