Civil suits often include damages of a punitive nature with large amounts imposed on the balance of probabilities.

In criminal cases, fines can be imposed but require conviction beyond reasonable doubt but those fines are often much less than punitive damages.

Since the purpose of punitive damages is, well, punitive: why doesn’t it require a conviction?

3 Answers 3


Depriving a person of their liberty requires a higher standard of certainty

Losing money is tough, but losing the ability to go outside when you want is a much worse penalty. Criminal convictions most often result in prison, so the standards of criminal conviction are different than civil cases. I think this makes sense to most people familiar with the system.

  • 1
    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – feetwet
    Commented Jan 28 at 20:05
  • 2
    YMMV. It strictly depends on the sentence length and the amount of fine (relative to your overall wealth).
    – Trang Oul
    Commented Jan 29 at 6:27

Financial penalties do not require criminality

Neither fines levied by the state nor punitive damages require criminality. For example, parking offences are not criminal and are usually punished by fines.

Only punishments that involve deprivation of liberty require a criminal conviction.

  • 10
    This response seems to simply restate the context around the question. Commented Jan 27 at 19:37
  • 1
    Are you sure parking offences are not criminal? There must be some jurisdictions where at least some parking offences are indeed criminal. But also if they're not criminal then what sort of offence are they? If you're not being prosecuted for the bad parking who's suing you? Or is it another form of legal action?
    – bdsl
    Commented Jan 28 at 0:26
  • 2
    They’re civil offenses and you are being prosecuted by the government @bdsl
    – Dale M
    Commented Jan 28 at 0:51
  • 1
    @bdsl Only if you park in the way of the fire truck, and then it the illegal parking is a civil offense in addition to the criminal act of hindering the rescue service.
    – Trish
    Commented Jan 28 at 17:03
  • 1
    I was taught “parking in the way of a fire truck hinders it only minimally, and no insurance will pay for the damage to your car”. If the fire engine needs to get through, it gets through. If it needs to get through fast, it gets through fast.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 28 at 18:05

The difference is between a civil action and criminal prosecution.

A civil action pits citizen vs. citizen (substitute org for citizen). The law limits the punishment one citizen can levy on another to monetary damages (and possibly a public apology). The proof standard is the preponderance of the evidence (>50% chance the alleged harm occurred). Juries decide awards based on proportionality and cognizant of the respondent's ability to pay.

Criminal prosecution pits The People of the state against the individual charged with criminal offense. Punishments go well beyond $ fines, to include incarceration, and in the extreme, the death penalty. The proof standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning there is no reasonable explanation for what happened other than criminal intent -- a much more rigorous proof standard than in a civil suit.

  • 1
    Governments often engage in civil enforcement, at least in the US system. One advantage of doing so, from the government's point of view, is the lower standard of proof.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 28 at 15:44
  • 2
    This does not appear to answer the question as asked. To recap, the question asks "Why?" This does not appear to answer why. It merely states that there is a difference, but does not explain why that difference (who is the plaintiff) should lead to the result (difference in standards for conviction). The question also anticipates part of this answer and explains criminal cases can also lead to a punishment that is solely a fine and those fines can often be less than the punitive damages in a civil case, and I don't see tha taddressed.
    – D.W.
    Commented Jan 28 at 18:34
  • "possibly a public apology" Western legal systems never impose this as a punishment.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 28 at 23:16
  • @D.W. Law.SE can only answer the question "why" in the narrow sense (i.e. because of how the distinction between civil and criminal cases is drawn. By why the people made the legal system chose to make it the way that it is, is beyond the scope of Law.SE.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 28 at 23:19
  • 1
    @WOPR Civil damages aren't a bail or fine, and the latter part of the amendment has been found to refer to criminal punishment - Ingraham v. Wright, 1977: "An examination of the history of the [Eighth] Amendment and the decisions of this Court construing the proscription against cruel and unusual punishment confirms that it was designed to protect those convicted of crimes." Commented Jan 29 at 16:17

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .