What Is Civil Liability?

Civil liability is the potential for responsibility of payment to an aggrieved party due to the violation of a civil law, tort, or breach of contract. Civil liability differs from criminal liability in that violations of torts or contract terms do not subject the liable party to punishment for a crime, though civil liability can include punitive monetary damages or other court enforcement, such as barring further instances of harassment.

To succeed in a tort claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant has committed a civil offense for which the law provides monetary damages. Common examples of tort claims include automobile accidents, employment discrimination and defamation of character claims. Some torts are also crimes, such as assault.

To succeed in a breach of contract claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant failed to perform obligations under a contract. Failure of a defendant to perform services for which he was compensated, such as a builder not completing a project for which he was paid, is a common contract claim. Contract claims can arise from a defendant’s failure or refusal to perform contracted obligations. Contract claims can be brought for a fundamental breach of contract or for a minor breach of contract. In a fundamental contract breach, the defendant has violated a major contract term, in which case the contract is discharged, freeing a plaintiff from his contract obligations. In a minor breach, the contract remains intact, though a plaintiff may pursue a suit for damages.