Cok Kinzler: The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Lawsuits in Montana - Cok Kinzler

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April 20,2021

The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Lawsuits in Montana

When it comes to lawsuits, they can be broken down into two major categories – criminal lawsuits and civil lawsuits. While they share some similarities, key differentiating factors determine whether a case qualifies as a civil suit or a criminal suit. When you experience a personal injury or any other kind of wrongdoing, It's important to understand how these differentiating factors will affect your case and how you file.

What is a Civil Lawsuit?

A civil lawsuit refers to a private suit between two individuals or an individual and an organization. This occurs when a plaintiff (the person alleging the incident) claims that another individual or organization (the defendant) has failed to live up to the legal duty that they owed to the plaintiff. These legal duties can refer to rights established under state or federal law.

When the defendant fails to live up to these legal duties, the plaintiff may file a civil case against them in order to rectify the failure. The court may enforce this in the form of requiring the defendant to fulfill the legal duty, or to pay what we call "damages." These are funds that compensate the plaintiff for their emotional, mental, or physical troubles as a result of the defendant's failure.

Personal injury lawsuits, for example, are civil suits because they involve two parties and, generally, the plaintiff is requesting damages from the defendant to compensate for the injuries sustained.

Will My Civil Suit Be Filed in Montana's State Court or Federal Court?

Again, civil cases can be brought forward in both state and federal courts. Let's take a look at a few examples of each. Say you are injured when a defective tire catastrophically fails and comes apart when you are driving, causing you to crash your vehicle. If you decided to file a suit against the tire manufacturer, this would be a civil suit in a state court.

Civil suits move to federal courts when an individual or organization has violated a federal statute or constitutional right, or if the two parties involved are in separate states. For example, a person could sue their local police department for using unreasonable force during an arrest. This failure of legal duty would violate their fourth amendment, making their civil case a federal one.

What Constitutes a Criminal Lawsuit?

Now that we've got a good handle on what constitutes a civil case, let's take a look at what classifies some cases as criminal. Unlike a civil case, where a dispute occurs between two private parties, a criminal case involves acts committed against a city, state, county, or the federal government. Like a civil case, a criminal case may be handled on either a federal or state level. If it's filed on a federal level, the United States Attorney's Office will carry out the suit on behalf of the American people. If it is filed on a state level, then the duty falls to the state attorney's office, where the District Attorney will prosecute the crime.

With these sorts of cases, it's not necessarily the victim's responsibility to bring the criminal suit forward against the violating party. For example, if someone were to rob a bank and be apprehended, it's not the bank's responsibility to hold the alleged bank robbers accountable for the crime. Similarly, if an investor commits financial fraud, it's not the responsibility of the clients to bring forth a suit against the investor. The United States government would bring the alleged guilty party to court for potential sentencing.

When Criminal Cases and Civil Cases Intersect

While they mostly exist separately, there are occasional instances where criminal and civil lawsuits may occur simultaneously. For example, if someone assaults you and the police are called, the state may decide to prosecute the alleged abuser, making it a criminal case. At the same time, you may choose to sue for damages to cover the medical expenses that occurred as a result of the assault. This would make the case a civil case as well. This is also common in vehicular homicide. When the government may bring charges against an individual for breaking the law (such as driving under the influence), the family may also choose to sue that individual for damages in a wrongful death suit.

Our legal team at Cok Kinzler prioritizes educating our clients so that they understand their options and the legal process from start to finish. If you believe you are the victim of a personal injury and have questions about whether your case qualifies as a criminal or civil suit, contact us today to get the answers and representation you need.