How do Damages Work in Civil Law Cases? Three Facts

Legal theory

How would you define civil law? As it sounds like, this is the body of laws dealing with the rights of private citizens. In other words, these laws are not governing, and distinct from, political, criminal, and military matters. These court cases are known as “tort,” and over 500,000 Federal tort court lawsuits occur every year. Although many of us become informed about certain laws and courtroom standards from watching shows, these shows often focus exclusively on criminal court. Here are three important things you should know about civil law.

1. The Burden of Proof

Proof burden is one example of how civil cases differ from criminal. To win a case, the prosecuting party needs to prove, to a certain extent, that the guilty party is, in fact, guilty. For criminal trials, the burden is “above a reasonable doubt,” meaning that there is no serious doubt, and a 95% certainty regarding the verdict. For most civil trials, however, the burden is less definitive; there need only be a “preponderance of evidence, or a 51% certainty.

2. How Damages Work

You may have heard of legal phrases like “punitive damages.” In a civil trial, the defendant often has to pay monetary damages if found guilty. There are two types of damages, compensatory and punitive. Compensatory, as far as law definitions go, basically means “covering the cost.” This can include lost wages, medical bills, etc. Punitive, on the other hand, is intended to provide a disincentive for others who would commit the same crime. In 1992, one court case outraged people when McDonald’s was found guilty of serving too hot coffee after one customer received scalding burns. They had to pay $160,000 in compensatory damages, but $2.7 million in punitive. Without punitive, an international company would have little legal incentive to “behave.”

3. Legal Notices

“You’ve been served,” says the character in many a movie. Most of us understand the basics of legal notices. For individuals, the law requires notification so that the plaintiff knows they have a specified number of days to respond to the summons. Due process otherwise forbids legal action. In the history of law, sheriffs were the original process servers, but their jurisdictions became too large over time, and the task is now regulated to a wide variety of individuals. A foreclosure is another example of a legal notice.

How would you define civil law?

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