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Civil Trial 101: Terms You Need To Know

Civil Trial 101: Terms You Need To KnowWhen you decide to take someone to court for a personal injury lawsuit, you are going to trial. This means that some of the things you may have read about in crime fiction, or seen in film and television will be familiar sights. There will be a courtroom, there will be a judge, two opposing lawyers, and in many cases, there will even be a jury present that needs to be convinced—one way or the other—about the merits of a case.

However, most of the courtroom activity portrayed in various types of fiction are for criminal trials. And despite the similarities, there are also some big differences between what happens at a criminal trial and the type that involve lawsuits. We’re going to explain some of the differences and terms that will help you better to understand this type of legal process that we specialize in.

Civil Trial

The biggest difference is that criminal trials involve violations of criminal law, which are generally considered harmful acts. Murder, assault, rape and other acts of violence are all considered criminal acts and don’t’ really require explanation. However other acts that don’t necessarily involve violence such as theft, drug dealing, and even insider trading are also considered criminal acts. Any criminal act that goes to trial has a fine and/or jail sentence as a possible outcome, although in the most severe cases, the death sentence is still carried out, either by lethal injection or electrocution.

Civil trials do not involve crimes. They do however, involve illegal acts that may violate another person’s rights, but the degree of violation in this case is not considered criminal. A rights violation in this case may consist of someone falling down a flight of stairs because a property owner did not install sufficient light to navigate the stairwell safely. Or it may involve a person receiving lifelong injuries from car accident because the other driver was distracted sending text messages.

In these cases, there was no criminal intent, and therefore, no criminal punishment required. However, another person’s rights were clearly violated, and so the punishment here is strictly civil, and thus financial in nature. This is where we leave the realm of criminal law, and enter that of Tort.

Tort Law

This is primarily the jurisdiction of civil trials. Tort comes from the French “to twist.” Tort law is based largely on the idea that a person has some kind obligation or responsibility that they are expected to oversee, and they have failed in this duty, resulting in the suffering of someone else.

A negligence tort, for example, might be someone on the road extending a “selfie-stick” out the window to film or photograph themselves, only to crash into another person because a lack of attention to road conditions. A strict liability tort, on the other hand, might be a case of a landlord in an apartment being repeatedly warned that the electrical system of the property is not safe. If that landlord ignores the warnings and an electrical fire results that harms renters and even burns up belongings, that’s a clear case of strict liability, where a danger on the property was ignored at severe cost to others on that property.


This is the most common term we have, although another acceptable term is “Tortfeasor,” which simply refers to the person that committed the tort that has resulted in a civil trial. This is similar to the defendant in criminal trials, except that no crime was involved.

There is another term, which is simply the “defense” but that has a different connotation.The defendant is the person or party that is being sued, while the defense is the attorney or legal team that is acting on behalf of the defendant. However, in both criminal and civil trials, it is the defendant that receives a verdict from the jury.


This takes the place of the “Prosecution” in a criminal case. Usually in criminal cases, the prosecution and the lawyers involved are representing the state in attempting to get a criminal conviction. A plaintiff however, and a plaintiff’s attorney, may be companies or ordinary citizens who are trying get some kind of financial compensation in a lawsuit.

In these situations, a violation of civil law does not automatically result in some kind of punishment. It is always the decision of the aggrieved party to pursue a case in court for compensation. Even if a distracted driver was responsible for an accident that resulted in a lifelong injury, unless the injured party takes action to pursue a lawsuit, nothing is required by the law itself to settle the matter.

This is why, in matters of civil legal violations, an experienced St. Pete lawyer is such an important advocate. In the place of any police or mandatory judicial response to punish a wrongdoing, it is what you and your personal injury lawyer can achieve in court that is the justice you get.

Michael J Babboni