Intentional torts and criminal cases are very similar in many respects. This is probably due to the fact that, in both classes of actions, the element of intent is essential. Their difference in fact lies, not in the substance of what constitutes the cause of action, but on the laws governing them and the meaning and consequences of each of them. However, most of these consequences are legal fiction. Examples of these differences are as follows. Torts are governed often by the civil code while crimes are governed by penal codes.
Moreover, the general rule is that tort is an offense against an individual, thus a private wrong, while crimes are considered as offenses against the estate mostly due to the public and moral interest involved in crimes. This is why the plaintiff in torts is the individual or person injured, while crimes are always prosecuted in the name of the state. However, the evidence required and actions and circumstances to be proved in both cases are often the same. To illustrate this similarity, the following are some examples of the parallelism between tort actions and criminal actions.
Battery and assault in tort law may be likened to the crimes of physical injury, harassment and threats. The crime to be charged depends mainly with the result and the means used. The tort defamation, including both slander and libel, is actually identical to the defamation as contemplated in criminal law even in terms of its defenses. Lastly, torts against economic interests such as interference with contractual relations and fraudulent misrepresentation have its equivalent as larceny and other frauds and crimes related to anti-trust and competition laws. These parallelisms between torts and crimes give a plaintiff a lot of choices.
However, while these choices may be, at first glance, a good thing. It may also make life for the plaintiff difficult. Too many things have to be considered. First and foremost is the motivation of the defendant. What does he or she want to achieve? Is his action motivated by desire for justice or revenge? Does he, in cases involving property and material interests, just want to get back what is rightfully his? Or does he want to prevent a similar breach from happening in the future. In relation to this consideration is the consideration of the features of both tort and criminal actions. Some of them were discussed above.
However, for the purposes of a plaintiff’s decision-making, it cannot be denied that tort actions are often easier and faster to prosecute. However, it may also be more expensive for the plaintiff and it may not be able to give him everything that he is looking for. The reason for this is that a tort action, being a civil case, requires a lower degree of proof than criminal cases. While a criminal case will require proof beyond reasonable ground, a tort case will merely require preponderance of evidence. Moreover, more presumptions have to be contended against in a criminal case than in a civil case.
The strongest of this is the presumption of innocence of the accused. The state is always apprehensive of punishing an innocent person. Therefore, criminal cases usually take longer to prosecute. However, the prize that a plaintiff gets in choosing a criminal case is greater. Aside from whatever pecuniary and material award he may get from the court, the penalty of imprisonment often gives the plaintiff a sense of justice and fulfillment especially when the defendant’s act resulted to extreme or lasting physical injury or to extreme moral anguish. These considerations make the choice for the plaintiff difficult.
However, the time for the defendant to choose is limited. Laws are filled with mechanisms that may bar actions even if proper. The strongest of this is prescription. Prescription is the fixed a mount of time wherein an action may be filed in court. Another is the possibility of res judicata or litis pendentia. These involve similar actions involving similar parties and similar causes of actions. Third is the fact that most criminal actions can be filed without the interference of the injured party. Since criminal cases are considered crimes against the state, all states and individuals are considered injured parties.
Being a transgression of a moral or community value, the damage is not limited to the party directly injured. Therefore, anyone, even the state, can initiate an action, even without the consent of the party directly injured. The party directly injured is in no case a main party to the case, the main party being the state. He is merely a witness for the state as regards the crime that has been committed. When such thing happens—meaning, someone other than the party directly injured file the action in court, the period for the plaintiff to choose becomes shorter.
Originally, he would have the longer prescriptive period to decide. However, this period is shortened by the filing of the case. On the other hand, this may be considered as making the choice easier for the party directly injured. Somebody else made the decision for him. The choice made was a criminal case. However, this is not necessarily true. Even if a criminal case is filed, a person may choose to file a separate civil case, but within a more limited period of time. In fact, this dilemma manifests even after a tort case is filed together with a civil case.
Many parties have settled for compromise of the civil liability even later in the life of a criminal case. The dilemma does not end here. After thinking of all that is beneficial for himself in terms of which type of case to file, the party directly injured will still have to think of himself not merely as an injured party, but as a member of society. It is easy to get most of what he wants especially in its monetary equivalent by filing a tort action. However, like everyone, the party directly injured is himself a member of the society.
He also has a responsibility to aid the state in punishing wrongs. Therefore, he has a responsibility to file a criminal case or inform the state that a criminal case should be filed to enable the proper arm of the state to act upon the need. Unfortunately, when a person cannot even decide what case to file in consideration only of what is good for himself, it is more difficult to think of what he has to do for the state. In this case, the issue transgressed what an individual plaintiff wants. He is also faced with the choice of giving in to his own interest or fulfilling his duty to the state.