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Can a Harm Be Both a Tort and a Crime?

Although Tort Law and Criminal Law are two different systems that serve two different purposes, they can overlap. Professor Gregory Dickinson explains how an action that is clearly a crime, such as murder, can also be pursued in a civil court. The perpetrator can face both a criminal trial (and punishment) and be sued under tort law for damages. https://youtube.com/watch?v=eLjKA420YXs


Tort law is such a foreign field to, I think probably, most law students. That's how it was for me in law school. I was like, well, what is a tort? And one way that you may have seen it kind of out there in the news is occasionally you'll have a victim of a crime. Somebody gets murdered, you know, something terrible like that. And there's a criminal prosecution. The state comes after them and says, you know, we're going to prosecute you for murder. We think you did it, and we're going to put you in prison. Maybe they are found not guilty by a jury. And so then, you often will see another lawsuit. You'll see the family of the victim sues the person who is alleged to have committed the crime. And I always thought that was the strangest thing before I went to law school. Why is that possible? You know, that you already got declared not guilty by a jury. Why are you now facing another lawsuit? And the reason is the distinction between criminal law and Tort law. In the criminal prosecution, that's the state saying we are protecting everyone's interest in not having a crime in society. We think this is, you know, beyond good society to behave this way; whereas in the suit by the family, they're saying: we think you killed our family member; we think you did great damage to our family through this murder, and so we're suing you in our private capacity through Tort law, through private law, rather than through the public law criminal system. The OJ Simpson case is a great example of this distinction. This was huge news when I was a kid, just constant media coverage. The trial was on TV, and you had this huge criminal prosecution against OJ Simpson who was alleged to have murdered his wife. And he was on trial for weeks. And at the end of the day, I remember it being huge news. I was watching the TV and the jury came out, and the jury reached a not guilty verdict. And so that seemed like the end of it. But then after that, there was this whole other trial. I remember it just kind of blew my mind, because the family of his wife sued him in Tort law for a wrongful death claim, saying: you killed this member of our family, you've taken something from us, you injured us. You've wronged us in the sort of way that Tort law corrects. And in that case, the jury came back and said: yeah, you're liable for this death, for this murder. And I just remember it being shocking to me that you could have two legal proceedings reach opposite results. And, and that was okay. But the fact that that's okay; it helps to distinguish very clearly the criminal law system where the government is saying we the people, we society, are coming after this alleged criminal, which has a very high standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt; versus the other context, which is a private party. The family of the alleged murder victim coming and saying: well, we also have something of very particular interest here, and we're going to sue in Tort law for wrongful death. And the burden of proof there is much different. It's a preponderance of the evidence standard; it essentially asks the jury: well, do you think this happened or not? Do you think this wrongdoing occurred or not? And because they're separate systems, criminal versus Tort law, and because the standard of proof happens to be different in two contexts; it was perfectly fine that the courts in those cases reach different results.

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