Tort Law versus Criminal Law

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Apart from legislation granting a right to sue for a specific harm, personal injury law generally consists of tort law and the civil procedure for enforcing it. This article discusses some of the distinctions between tort law and criminal law.

Tort Law and Criminal Law, Generally
In a general way, the purposes of tort law and criminal law are similar. Tort law and criminal law are both used to identify wrongdoers. Tort law and criminal law are both used to take corrective action against wrongdoers. Tort law and criminal law are both used to deter others from being wrongdoers. Tort law and criminal law are both used to discourage self-help.

Criminal Law
The overall purpose of criminal law is to provide some basic protection to society from clearly ant-social acts. Although crimes may have immediate victims (e.g., the owners of homes burned down by an arsonist), the ultimate victim of crime is society (e.g., the danger to everyone if an arsonist is not stopped). As a result, the focus of criminal law is on the person committing the crime. The focus of criminal law is on deciding if a person is a criminal and, if so, how the person should be punished. There is a sense in which criminal law is for the criminal.

As a general rule, in a criminal case, the financial harm suffered by the victim as a result of a crime is not the issue. Instead, there is an assumption in criminal law that tort law exists to compensate the victim for the victim's financial harm.

Tort Law
Tort law is a kind of civil law, like family law, property law, and contract law. Torts are some general standards of civil conduct. As a practical matter, torts are nothing more than a collection of theories for suing people for money and, if permitted, other remedies. The theme is that victims of torts are entitled to compensation for breach of the particular duties owed to them beyond family law, property law, and contract law. The focus of tort law is what the victim can do about the financial harm the victim has suffered.

Whereas there is an assumption in criminal law that tort law exists to compensate the victim for the victim's financial harm, the opposite is not true. There is no assumption in tort law that criminal law exists. Some wrongful conduct is a tort but not a crime, and vice versa. As general rule, in tort law, the financial harm suffered by the victim as a result of a tort is the only issue.

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