Reading: Types of Law: Criminal, Civil, Tort, Statutory, Common, and Intellectual Property

Criminal Law

It’s a crime to make unauthorized and harmful physical contact with another person (battery). In fact, it’s a crime even to threaten such contact (assault). Criminal law prohibits and punishes wrongful conduct, such as assault and battery, murder, robbery, extortion, and fraud. In criminal cases, the plaintiff—the party filing the complaint—is usually a government body acting as a representative of society. The defendant—the party charged in the complaint—may be an individual (such as your roommate) or an organization (such as a business). Criminal punishment includes fines, imprisonment, or both.

Civil Law

Assault and battery may also be a matter of civil law—law governing disputes between private parties (again, individuals or organizations). In civil cases, the plaintiff sues the defendant to obtain compensation for some wrong that the defendant has allegedly done the plaintiff. Thus your roommate may be sued for monetary damages by the homeowner’s neighbor, with whom he made unauthorized and harmful physical contact.

In civil litigation, contract and tort claims are by far the most numerous. The law attempts to adjust for harms done by awarding damages to a successful plaintiff who demonstrates that the defendant was the cause of the plaintiff’s losses. Torts can be intentional torts, negligent torts, or strict liability torts. Employers must be aware that in many circumstances, their employees may create liability in tort.

Tort Law

The term tort is the French equivalent of the English word wrong. The word tort is also derived from the Latin word tortum, which means "twisted or crooked or wrong." Thus, conduct that is twisted or crooked and not straight is a tort.

Long ago, tort was used in everyday speech; today it is left to the legal system. A judge will instruct a jury that a tort is usually defined as a wrong for which the law will provide a remedy, most often in the form of money damages. The law does not remedy all “wrongs.” The preceding definition of tort does not reveal the underlying principles that divide wrongs in the legal sphere from those in the moral sphere. Hurting someone’s feelings may be more devastating than saying something untrue about him behind his back; yet the law will not provide a remedy for saying something cruel to someone directly, while it may provide a remedy for "defaming" someone, orally or in writing, to others.

Although the word is no longer in general use, tort suits are the stuff of everyday headlines. More and more people injured by exposure to a variety of risks now seek redress (some sort of remedy through the courts). Headlines boast of multimillion-dollar jury awards against doctors who bungled operations, against newspapers that libeled subjects of stories, and against oil companies that devastate entire ecosystems. All are examples of tort suits.

The law of torts developed almost entirely in the common-law courts; that is, statutes passed by legislatures were not the source of law that plaintiffs usually relied on. Usually, plaintiffs would rely on the common law (judicial decisions). Through thousands of cases, the courts have fashioned a series of rules that govern the conduct of individuals in their noncontractual dealings with each other. Through contracts, individuals can craft their own rights and responsibilities toward each other. In the absence of contracts, tort law holds individuals legally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Those who suffer losses at the hands of others can be compensated.

Many acts (like homicide) are both criminal and tortious. But torts and crimes are different, and the difference is worth noting. A crime is an act against the people as a whole. Society punishes the murderer; it does not usually compensate the family of the victim. Tort law, on the other hand, views the death as a private wrong for which damages are owed. In a civil case, the tort victim or his family, not the state, brings the action. The judgment against a defendant in a civil tort suit is usually expressed in monetary terms, not in terms of prison times or fines, and is the legal system’s way of trying to make up for the victim’s loss.

Kinds of Torts

There are three kinds of torts: intentional torts, negligent torts, and strict liability torts. Intentional torts arise from intentional acts, whereas unintentional torts often result from carelessness (e.g., when a surgical team fails to remove a clamp from a patient’s abdomen when the operation is finished). Both intentional torts and negligent torts imply some fault on the part of the defendant. In strict liability torts, by contrast, there may be no fault at all, but tort law will sometimes require a defendant to make up for the victim’s losses even where the defendant was not careless and did not intend to do harm.

Dimensions of Tort Liability

There is a clear moral basis for recovery through the legal system where the defendant has been careless (negligent) or has intentionally caused harm. Using the concepts that we are free and autonomous beings with basic rights, we can see that when others interfere with either our freedom or our autonomy, we will usually react negatively. As the old saying goes, “Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose.” The law takes this even one step further: under intentional tort law, if you frighten someone by swinging your arms toward the tip of her nose, you may have committed the tort of assault, even if there is no actual touching (battery).

Under a capitalistic market system, rational economic rules also call for no negative externalities. That is, actions of individuals, either alone or in concert with others, should not negatively impact third parties. The law will try to compensate third parties who are harmed by your actions, even as it knows that a money judgment cannot actually mend a badly injured victim.


Tort principles can be viewed along different dimensions. One is the fault dimension. Like criminal law, tort law requires a wrongful act by a defendant for the plaintiff to recover. Unlike criminal law, however, there need not be a specific intent. Since tort law focuses on injury to the plaintiff, it is less concerned than criminal law about the reasons for the defendant’s actions. An innocent act or a relatively innocent one may still provide the basis for liability. Nevertheless, tort law—except for strict liability—relies on standards of fault, or blameworthiness.

The most obvious standard is willful conduct. If the defendant (often called the tortfeasor—i.e., the one committing the tort) intentionally injures another, there is little argument about tort liability. Thus all crimes resulting in injury to a person or property (murder, assault, arson, etc.) are also torts, and the plaintiff may bring a separate lawsuit to recover damages for injuries to his person, family, or property.

Most tort suits do not rely on intentional fault. They are based, rather, on negligent conduct that in the circumstances is careless or poses unreasonable risks of causing damage. Most automobile accident and medical malpractice suits are examples of negligence suits.

The fault dimension is a continuum. At one end is the deliberate desire to do injury. The middle ground is occupied by careless conduct. At the other end is conduct that most would consider entirely blameless, in the moral sense. The defendant may have observed all possible precautions and yet still be held liable. This is called strict liability. An example is that incurred by the manufacturer of a defective product that is placed on the market despite all possible precautions, including quality-control inspection. In many states, if the product causes injury, the manufacturer will be held liable.

Nature of Injury

Tort liability varies by the type of injury caused. The most obvious type is physical harm to the person (assault, battery, infliction of emotional distress, negligent exposure to toxic pollutants, wrongful death) or property (trespass, nuisance, arson, interference with contract). Mental suffering can be redressed if it is a result of physical injury (e.g., shock and depression following an automobile accident). A few states now permit recovery for mental distress alone (a mother’s shock at seeing her son injured by a car while both were crossing the street). Other protected interests include a person’s reputation (injured by defamatory statements or writings), privacy (injured by those who divulge secrets of his personal life), and economic interests (misrepresentation to secure an economic advantage, certain forms of unfair competition).


A third element in the law of torts is the excuse for committing an apparent wrong. The law does not condemn every act that ultimately results in injury.

One common rule of exculpation is assumption of risk. A baseball fan who sits along the third base line close to the infield assumes the risk that a line drive foul ball may fly toward him and strike him. He will not be permitted to complain in court that the batter should have been more careful or that management should have either warned him or put up a protective barrier.

Another excuse is negligence of the plaintiff. If two drivers are careless and hit each other on the highway, some states will refuse to permit either to recover from the other. Still another excuse is consent: two boxers in the ring consent to being struck with fists (but not to being bitten on the ear).


Since the purpose of tort law is to compensate the victim for harm actually done, damages are usually measured by the extent of the injury. Expressed in money terms, these include replacement of property destroyed, compensation for lost wages, reimbursement for medical expenses, and dollars that are supposed to approximate the pain that is suffered. Damages for these injuries are called compensatory damages.

In certain instances, the courts will permit an award of punitive damages. As the word punitive implies, the purpose is to punish the defendant’s actions. Because a punitive award (sometimes called exemplary damages) is at odds with the general purpose of tort law, it is allowable only in aggravated situations. The law in most states permits recovery of punitive damages only when the defendant has deliberately committed a wrong with malicious intent or has otherwise done something outrageous.

Punitive damages are rarely allowed in negligence cases for that reason. But if someone sets out intentionally and maliciously to hurt another person, punitive damages may well be appropriate. Punitive damages are intended not only to punish the wrongdoer, by exacting an additional and sometimes heavy payment (the exact amount is left to the discretion of jury and judge), but also to deter others from similar conduct. The punitive damage award has been subject to heavy criticism in recent years in cases in which it has been awarded against manufacturers. One fear is that huge damage awards on behalf of a multitude of victims could swiftly bankrupt the defendant. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are taxable.

Table 1 below provides a more complete list of intentional torts, along with the types of compensatory damages normally awarded in each type of case.

Table 1. Categories of Intentional Torts
Category Type Definition Compensatory Damages Usually Awarded
Against persons Assault Threatening immediate harm or offensive contact For medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering
Battery Making unauthorized harmful or offensive contact with another person
Defamation Communicating to a third party information that’s harmful to someone’s reputation For measurable financial losses
Invasion of privacy Violating someone’s right to live his or her life without unwarranted or undesired publicity For resulting economic loss or pain and suffering
False imprisonment Restraining or confining a person against his or her will and without justification For treatment of physical injuries and lost time at work
Intentional infliction of emotional distress Engaging in outrageous conduct that’s likely to cause extreme emotional distress to the party toward whom the conduct is directed For treatment of physical illness resulting from emotional stress
Against property Trespass to realty Entering another person’s land or placing an object on another person’s land without the owner’s permission For harm caused to property and losses suffered by rightful owner
Trespass to personalty Interfering with another person’s use or enjoyment of personal property For harm to property
Conversion Permanently removing property from the rightful owner’s possession For full value of converted item
Against economic interests Disparagement Making a false statement of material fact about a business product For actual economic loss
Intentional interference with a contract Enticing someone to breach a valid contract For loss of expected benefits from contract
Unfair competition Going into business for the sole purpose of taking business from another concern For lost profits
Misappropriation Using an unsolicited idea for a product or marketing method without compensating the originator of the idea For economic losses
Source: Adapted from Nancy A. Kubasek, Bartley A. Brennan, and M. Neil Browne, The Legal Environment of Business: A Critical Thinking Approach, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2009), 348.
As we indicated, your roommate may have committed assault and battery in violation of both criminal and civil statutes. Consequently, he may be in double trouble: not only may he be sued for a civil offense by the homeowner’s neighbor, but he may also be prosecuted for a criminal offense by the proper authority in the state where the incident took place. It’s also conceivable that he may be sued but not prosecuted, or vice versa. Everything is up to the discretion of the complaining parties—the homeowner’s neighbor in the civil case and the prosecutor’s office in the criminal case.

Why might one party decide to pursue a case while the other decides not to? A key factor might be the difference in the burden of proof placed on each potential plaintiff. Liability in civil cases may be established by a preponderance of the evidence—the weight of evidence necessary for a judge or jury to decide in favor of the plaintiff (or the defendant). Guilt in criminal cases, however, must be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt—doubt based on reason and common sense after careful, deliberate consideration of all the pertinent evidence. Criminal guilt thus carries a tougher standard of proof than civil liability, and it’s conceivable that even though the plaintiff in the civil case believes that he can win by a preponderance of the evidence, the prosecutor may feel that she can’t prove criminal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Finally, note that your roommate would be more likely to face criminal prosecution if he had committed assault and battery with criminal intent—with the intent, say, to kill or rob the homeowner’s neighbor or to intimidate him from testifying about the accident with the paint bucket. In that case, in most jurisdictions, his action would be not only a crime but a felony—a serious or “inherently evil” crime punishable by imprisonment. Otherwise, if he’s charged with criminal wrongdoing at all, it will probably be for a misdemeanor—a crime that’s not “inherently evil” but that is nevertheless prohibited by society. Table 2 below summarizes some of the key differences in the application of criminal and civil law.

Table 2. Civil versus Criminal Law
Civil Law Criminal Law
Parties Individual or corporate plaintiff vs. individual or corporate defendant Local, state, or federal prosecutor vs. individual or corporate defendant
Purpose Compensation or deterrence Punishment/deterrence/rehabilitation
Burden of proof Preponderance of the evidence Beyond a reasonable doubt
Trial by jury/jury vote Yes (in most cases)/specific number of votes for judgment in favor of plaintiff Yes/unanimous vote for conviction of defendant
Sanctions/penalties Monetary damages/equitable remedies (e.g., injunction, specific performance) Probation/fine/imprisonment/capital punishment
Source: Adapted from Henry R. Cheesman, Contemporary Business and Online Commerce Law: Legal, Internet, Ethical, and Global Environments, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2006), 127.

Common Law

Common law consists of decisions by courts (judicial decisions) that do not involve interpretation of statutes, regulations, treaties, or the Constitution. Courts make such interpretations, but many cases are decided where there is no statutory or other codified law or regulation to be interpreted. For example, a state court deciding what kinds of witnesses are required for a valid will in the absence of a rule (from a statute) is making common law.

United States law comes primarily from the tradition of English common law. By the time England’s American colonies revolted in 1776, English common-law traditions were well established in the colonial courts. English common law was a system that gave written judicial decisions the force of law throughout the country. Thus if an English court delivered an opinion as to what constituted the common-law crime of burglary, other courts would stick to that decision, so that a common body of law developed throughout the country. Common law is essentially shorthand for the notion that a common body of law, based on past written decisions, is desirable and necessary.

In England and in the laws of the original thirteen states, common-law decisions defined crimes such as arson, burglary, homicide, and robbery. As time went on, US state legislatures either adopted or modified common-law definitions of most crimes by putting them in the form of codes or statutes. This legislative ability—to modify or change common law into judicial law—points to an important phenomenon: the priority of statutory law over common law.

Statutory Law

Another source of law is statutory law. While the Constitution applies to government action, statutes apply to and regulate individual or private action. A statute is a written (and published) law that can be enacted in one of two ways. Most statutes are written and voted into law by the legislative branch of government. This is simply a group of individuals elected for this purpose. The US legislative branch is Congress, and Congress votes federal statutes into law. Every state has a legislative branch as well, called a state legislature, and a state legislature votes state statutes into law. Often, states codify their criminal statutes into a penal code.

State citizens can also vote state statutes into law. Although a state legislature adopts most state statutes, citizens voting on a ballot can enact some very important statutes. For example, a majority of California’s citizens voted to enact California’s medicinal marijuana law, California Compassionate Use Act of 1996, Cal. Health and Safety Code § 11362.5. In another example of statutory law, California’s three-strikes law was voted into law by both the state legislature and California’s citizens and actually appears in the California Penal Code in two separate places.

An important fact to note is that Statutory law is inferior to constitutional law, which means that a statute cannot conflict with or attempt to supersede constitutional rights. If a conflict exists between constitutional and statutory law, the courts must resolve the conflict. Courts can invalidate unconstitutional statutes pursuant to their power of judicial review.


  • The legal environment of business is the area in which business interacts with the legal system.
  • Criminal law prohibits and punishes wrongful conduct. The plaintiff—the party filing the complaint—is usually a government body acting as a representative of society. The defendant—the party charged in the complaint—may be an individual or an organization. Criminal punishment includes fines, imprisonment, or both. Civil law refers to law governing disputes between private parties. In civil cases, the plaintiff sues the defendant to obtain compensation for some wrong that the defendant has allegedly done the plaintiff.
  • Tort law covers torts, or civil wrongs—injuries done to someone’s person or property. The punishment in tort cases is the monetary compensation that the court orders the defendant to pay the plaintiff.
  • An intentional tort is an intentional act that poses harm to the plaintiff. Intentional torts may be committed against a person, a person’s property, or a person’s economic interests. In addition to intentional torts, the law recognizes negligence torts and strict liability torts.
  • Liability in civil cases may be established by a preponderance of the evidence—the weight of evidence necessary for a judge or jury to decide in favor of the plaintiff (or the defendant). Guilt in criminal cases must be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt—doubt based on reason and common sense after careful, deliberate consideration of all the pertinent evidence.
  • A crime may be a felony—a serious or “inherently evil” crime punishable by imprisonment—or a misdemeanor—a crime that’s not “inherently evil” but that is nevertheless prohibited by society.

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