Negligence is a commonly used legal term that often comes into play in both civil and criminal lawsuits. While the principle is similar in criminal and civil cases, there are some minor differences to keep in mind when discussing the two.

Criminal vs. Civil Negligence

The law defines civil negligence as an action, or inaction, where a person failed to exercise a reasonable standard of care that a reasonable person would undertake in similar circumstances.

For instance, negligence is failing to obey the traffic rules, failure by a doctor to take the appropriate action while taking care of a patient, and even failure by a company or organization to ensure the correct safety standards are met at work.

Criminal negligence is defined similarly. Criminal negligence is when a person fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk to the degree that the failure represents a gross deviation from the standard of care.

While both definitions use the term “standard of care,” there are significant differences between the two definitions. To prove criminal negligence, the person must fail to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk, where civil negligence doesn’t have such a requirement. Criminal negligence also requires a “gross deviation” from the standard of care, while civil negligence can be found with any deviation from the standard of care, regardless of the degree. The charge of criminal negligence is stricter and harder to meet than that of civil negligence.

Finally, there is the consideration of intent. For a person to be found guilty of a crime, they need to have committed the act and also acted with criminal intent. Criminal intent comes in many levels, spanning intentional behavior, reckless behavior, or criminally negligent behavior.

Intentional conduct means that the person acted knowing what the consequences of those actions would be, intending to bring about those consequences. Criminal negligence, on the other hand, is when a person knows the potential consequences of their actions but doesn’t explicitly intend them to happen. For instance, driving drunk and hitting a pedestrian can be considered criminally negligent, since the person understood the potential consequence of their actions, but wasn’t actually intending to hit and kill somebody.

Who Can Bring Cases of Criminal and Civil Negligence?

Only the government can bring about a case of criminal negligence. The decision to bring a case of criminal negligence rests with the appropriate prosecutorial body that reviews the facts and decides that a criminal charge is appropriate. The case is then treated as a criminal case, meaning the charge needs to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Consequences of being found guilty of a criminal charge are usually much more severe than those of a civil charge. Criminal charges can include prison time in addition to monetary compensation.

Cases of civil negligence are relatively common, especially in medical malpractice, personal injury, and wrongful death suits. These charges can be filed by anybody. In a civil case tried in a civil court, the plaintiff only needs to show a preponderance of evidence to win the case. Civil cases can only result in monetary penalties known as damages. If found guilty, the defendant must pay these damages to the plaintiff.

Wrongful Death

Wrongful death suits exemplify how a single event can bring about two different criminal actions, one in civil court and one in criminal court. Plus, states have their own differences that can affect how, or when, a wrongful death claim can be made. Wrongful death cases in Arizona are defined as any case where, if the person had survived, they would be able to bring a personal injury suit instead.

For instance, if a person was involved in a traffic accident and killed by a drunk driver, both criminal and civil charges may be filed.

The Arizona Revised Statutes have strict guidelines of who is allowed to file a wrongful death civil claim. According to Arizona law, a wrongful death civil suit may be brought against a negligent party by a surviving spouse or child or by the estate of the deceased. If the plaintiff wins their case, they receive financial compensation for their loss in the form of damages, both to compensate for tangible financial losses and intangible emotional loss and suffering.

Criminal charges in the case of a wrongful death must be brought by a state or federal prosecutor.  If a person is found guilty of criminal negligence, they may face more severe consequences, such as imprisonment, probation, and fines. The burden of proof is more stringent in a criminal case, as the defendant needs to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to be convicted.


If you’ve experienced the loss due to another’s negligence, you are well within your rights to seek legal recourse. Similarly, those who have criminal charges brought against them have the right to defend themselves against those charges.  Talk to an experience attorney today to find out what your options are, both in the civil and criminal courts.


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