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Is There a Difference Between Civil Negligence and Criminal Negligence?

In the legal world, the terms “negligent” and “negligence” are used frequently. Even non-lawyers probably hear the words often. For example, in this blog and other media, injured victims of wrongdoing are informed that the law provides to them a remedy for injuries caused by the negligence of others. Television, radio, and internet news outlets issue news reports about wrongful behavior leading to charges of criminal negligence. In both instances, the term “negligence” is used.

But is there a difference between criminal negligence and civil negligence? In this article, we will define criminal negligence, civil negligence, and the difference between the two.

How is “Negligence” Defined in Civil and Criminal Law?

What is Civil Negligence?

Civil negligence occurs when a person fails to exercise ordinary care, sometimes referred to as “due diligence”. The standard is measured by what a reasonable person – sometimes referred to as a person of ordinary prudence – would do under the same or similar circumstances. Sometimes parties cannot agree on whether the standard has been violated, resulting in the need for a jury trial.

What is Criminal Negligence?

Oregon defines criminal negligence, on the other hand, by statute. 2017 Oregon Revised statutes section 161.085 states in part, as follows: “‘Criminal negligence’ or ‘criminally negligent’ …  means that a person fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk … The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to be aware of it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”

Is Criminal Negligence a Felony?

Criminal negligence can rise to the level of a felony – for example, if it results in homicide or manslaughter.

What About Criminal Neglect?

One term that is often confused with “negligence” is “neglect.” Though related, these two terms describe two completely distinct categories of actions. While both civil and criminal negligence law describes failures to exercise reasonable levels of care in specific circumstances, neglect describes a specific type of abuse in which a person fails to care for someone who cannot care for themselves – most often occuring in familial or similar caretaking settings. Neglect can and sometimes does rise to the level of criminal behavior, but criminal neglect should not be confused with criminal negligence.

Examining the Differences

The definitions of both civil negligence and criminal negligence use some of the same terminology, such as “standard of care.” But there are some clear differences.

First, the definition of criminal negligence requires a person to fail to be aware of a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” for conviction. There is no such requirement for a finding of civil negligence.

Second, the criminal definition requires a “gross deviation” from the reasonable person standard of care. On the other hand, civil negligence can be found with any deviation from the reasonable person standard of care. Thus, we can conclude that it is harder to meet the criminal definition of negligence than the civil definition.

Below, we’ll explain the rationale behind this standard.

The Requirement of Intent in Criminal Law

For a person to be guilty of a crime, the government must prove that the person committed a criminal act and had the appropriate mens rea. Translated literally, mens rea means “guilty mind,” but in criminal law, the term has come to mean criminal intent.

Statutes that criminalize behavior often specify the level of criminal intent that is required for a conviction, but not always. There are a number of levels of criminal intent, including intentional behavior, reckless behavior, and criminally negligent behavior.

The requirement of intent is important for societal and policy reasons. Because criminal convictions can result in incarceration, fines, and probation, there is a belief that the conduct should be intentional, grossly reckless, or grossly negligent.

When Does Each Type of Negligence Come into Play?

With regard to criminal negligence, only the government can bring a case. Therefore, the appropriate prosecutorial body will examine the facts and ultimately decide if a criminal charge should be filed. If it is, the elements of the case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Civil negligence is used to determine liability in many types of civil actions, including the following: automobile accidents, semi-truck crashes, medical malpractice, nursing home liabilitypremises liability, and any case in which one person sues another person for negligently causing injury to the victim. The plaintiff must only prove the case by a preponderance of the evidence.

Call with Questions

Legal recognition of both criminal and civil negligence serves an important function – it keeps society safer by holding people accountable for their behavior. For this reason, the personal injury attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield take our role in holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions in civil court seriously.

If you have suffered injuries due to the negligence of another person, you probably have several questions about your rights and the best way to proceed. We would be happy to answer those questions for you.