I was surprised by this comment on liability. The context was about self-driving cars, and why it is such a big deal whether the owner/passenger is liable, or the manufacturer, in case both are insured.

Because I can jail whoever is liable, and insurance does not cover in cases of gross misconduct -- so liability matters, and as you point out the product manefactures has liability as well, but that is regardless of the car is driverless or not. – Soren

In what context can Soren jail whoever is liable? I thought debtor's prisons were mostly a thing of the past. Is jailing someone for failing to pay a fee for which s/he is liable still practiced in any country in Europe or North America?

(NB: I do not literally mean that Soren personally jails whoever is liable.)

  • Umm... what? I thought you could only be jailed under criminal charges (mind you, those civil matters could result in criminal charges, such as contempt of court, or criminal negligence, but not directly as a result from civil matters)
    – Zizouz212
    Mar 17, 2016 at 15:38
  • One can go to prison for criminal negligence, which might obviously be in play, in addition to civil liability, in a case involving a vehicle accident.
    – phoog
    Mar 17, 2016 at 19:24

1 Answer 1


As far as I understand, no one can jail anyone as a result of a civil matter. I can't just say, hey! You did this! I'm taking you to jail. You simply don't have the reason and authority to do so - and I doubt the jails would want random people coming in for random reasons. Courts also don't send people to jail for this. As far as I understand, you can only be jailed by a judge for a criminal matter.

However, you can go to jail as a result of a civil matter. When this happens, you need to found guilty of a criminal offence, most notably Contempt of Court. You can be found guilty of that offence if you don't respond/comply to the court's instructions - such as failing to repay debts. In order to be found in contempt, the court needs to find that you also intended to refuse the court's instruction (this is known as mens rea).

If you were found liable, the court would not send you to jail. They would instead tell you to repay the damages that you owed the creditor (the person who filed suit). Inability to do this does not result in contempt of court, however, you should generally let the court know of this.

In terms of this, the court can allow the creditor to garnish wages, have scheduled payments... etc of the debtor.

To answer the main question, the only time that the court will jail a person will be upon conviction of a criminal offence (such as contempt of court), and not a civil matter (such as liability).

  • such as failing to repay debts, does that include a situation where I am unable to pay debts?
    – gerrit
    Mar 17, 2016 at 15:47
  • @gerrit So basically, it's failing to comply with a court's instruction. It's a good question, but I'm pretty sure that inability wouldn't allow you to be guilty. But there's probably a whole bunch of other rules and stuff of which I'm not aware (I'm looking around on that right now)
    – Zizouz212
    Mar 17, 2016 at 15:50
  • 1
    @gerrit This has been addressed on Money.SE: Can a person end up in prison for unpaid debt in the USA? The answer is that if you can prove that you can't both pay the fine and survive, the government is not permitted to punish you for that. The debt/judgment still stands, but you are only required to pay it at a rate that your (post-survival-expenses) income allows.
    – apsillers
    Mar 17, 2016 at 19:22
  • This is a naive answer. The mechanism by which you can go to jail is if a petitioner brings a motion to civil court, which court rules in some way, and subsequently the respondent fails to abide by the court's ruling, and is held in CONTEMPT by the court...which has the power to incarcerate the respondent until he/she "cures" the contempt.
    – dwoz
    Oct 30, 2016 at 23:13

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