What Is Civil Court?

Written by J. Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Most courts in the United States are either civil or criminal. In criminal courts, people who have been accused of breaking a law are tried. Civil courts are where a plaintiff may sue a defendant. The manner in which a civil matter is tried, and the punishments that may result, is quite different from what happens in a criminal court.

Types of Civil Cases

In a civil suit, a plaintiff sues an individual or entity that they believe has harmed them. This could be a matter in family court like a divorce or custody hearing. It may also be an eviction or a matter where one person sues another because of injuries sustained in a car accident. Bankruptcy cases and lawsuits against debtors are also heard in civil court. Groups or individuals who believe that their civil rights have been violated may also sue in civil court.

How Is a Civil Case Won?

Most people are familiar with the term, "beyond a reasonable doubt." However, that is a criminal court concept. Civil courts are concerned with a "preponderance of the evidence." Essentially, it is up to each of the plaintiff and the defendant to prove that they have the stronger case through the presentation of evidence. Just because the plaintiff brings the suit does not guarantee victory. Decisions in civil court are made based solely on the evidence.

Possible Civil Court Outcomes

Unlike in criminal court where a guilty verdict likely means going to jail, the outcomes of civil matters are quite different. In civil lawsuits, the plaintiff asks for a form of relief, which may be either monetary or equitable.

Monetary relief is asked for when a cash award can repair the damage suffered by the plaintiff. Monetary relief may include back pay for an employee who was wrongfully terminated. Another form of monetary relief is called compensatory damages. This is money paid to address non-economic harm like a damaged reputation or emotional distress. Punitive damages, designed to punish the defendant, may also be ordered. In many cases, the plaintiff may also ask that the defendant pay their attorney's fees.

Equitable relief concerns asking the other party to either perform an act or to refrain from performing an act. Being granted equitable relief may mean that the other party must abide by the terms of a contract. Usually, equitable relief is granted only when monetary relief is inadequate compensation.

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