Civil Law

In the U.S. legal system, civil law is the branch of law concerning disputes between individuals and/or organizations, where a judgment can be the requirement of action, the cessation of action, and/or monetary payments from one party to another. In general, civil law is all law that is not criminal law, which concerns the state charging someone with having committed a crime. Civil law can involve matters of torts, such as accidents and negligence; disputes regarding contracts, property, wills and trusts, marriages, and family issues; and adherence to administrative regulations, commercial laws, civil rights law, and constitutional law. This entry provides an overview of civil law with examples from education.

Some Basics

Civil laws derive from four main sources: (1) statutes written by a legislature, either a state legislature or the U.S. Congress; (2) regulations created by local, state, and federal agencies, such as the state department of education; (3) common law based on court interpretations of specific cases; and (4) state and the U.S. constitutions. All state laws and regulations are subordinate to their state’s constitutions, and no law or regulation may contradict the U.S. Constitution. Every state constitution contains an education provision, while the U.S. Constitution does not.

The vast majority of litigation in education law comes from civil law. State laws mandating school attendance, general curriculum content, and disciplinary practices as well as similar district regulations are examples of civil law. State laws outlawing bilingual education are another example of civil law. Federal legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, are examples of civil law at the national level. Court cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and Lau v. Nichols (1954), are civil law actions.

Civil rights lawsuits, for example, have been an essential tool used by minority students to require that states provide them with educational opportunities equal to those provided to the majority White students in regular education. Minority groups, by themselves, do not have the votes necessary to pass legislation that will ensure that minority students receive quality schooling, if those laws are resisted by the majority White population. Nor are they able to stop discriminatory practices, if those practices are supported by the majority White population. Relying on the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act, civil rights lawsuits have helped these minority students improve their educational opportunities where legislative success would be unlikely or impossible.

Nevertheless, civil rights lawsuits, while necessary, have not been sufficient to effect substantive, lasting change by themselves. To improve the political, social, and structural aspects of schooling for minority students, protests and public education campaigns, as well as legislation, when possible, have been needed in addition to the legal victories.

Civil Lawsuits

In pursuing a civil lawsuit, plaintiffs have the burden of proving their cases against defendants. Plaintiffs will prevail if they can prove their cases by a preponderance of all of the evidence presented at trial. In numerical terms, plaintiffs win if there is more than a 50% probability that their claims are true. If not, the defendants win. This is a much lower burden of proof than in a criminal trial, where claims must be true beyond a reasonable doubt. In numerical terms, beyond a reasonable doubt is generally estimated to mean that there is at least a 95% likelihood that the prosecution’s claims are correct. In a few tort claims, such as fraud, plaintiffs must prove their case with clear and convincing evidence, a standard between preponderance and beyond a reasonable doubt.

There are times when the burden of proof can shift from plaintiffs to defendants in civil suits. In these situations, the plaintiffs first present a preponderance of evidence that some aspect of their case is true; this creates a presumption that the defendants have committed wrong actions. To win, defendants must refute the presumption by a preponderance of the evidence. For example, in civil actions by parents to desegregate a school system, the parents can first demonstrate that a school board intentionally segregated at least one part of the system. Once the parents have made this demonstration with a preponderance of the evidence, there is a presumption that the entire school district is intentionally segregated. Once the judge determines that this has occurred, the defendant school board must prove with a preponderance of the evidence that the entire school district has not been intentionally segregated. Otherwise, the board will be subject to a judicial desegregation order.

In gathering evidence for a civil trial, considerable cooperation is required between plaintiffs and defendants. The attorney for any party may demand nonprivileged information from the other parties about any matter that is relevant to the case. This can include requests for documents, visits to property, deposition interviews with parties and their proposed witnesses, and a list from the other parties of any other persons who might have relevant information. Further, in a civil lawsuit, the defendants and the plaintiffs themselves must be available for deposition interviews and to testify as witnesses. If, at trial, a party refuses to testify, the judge can instruct the jury that they may make a negative inference against that party in their deliberations.

Possible Outcomes

Generally, in civil cases, losing defendants are required to compensate the plaintiffs for losses caused by their actions. In a contract case, that would be the amount that the plaintiff lost as a result of the defendant’s violation of the terms of the contract. In a tort case, that would be the amount of money necessary to put the plaintiffs back in the position they would have been in if the tort had not taken place. In cases where negligence has led to personal injuries, it can be very difficult to determine the amount of money that would compensate a plaintiff for the loss of a limb or the pain and suffering experienced during recovery. At times, juries have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in these cases.

In certain civil cases, such as actions for negligence and civil rights violations, the plaintiff may demonstrate that the defendant’s behavior was willful or especially egregious and may be awarded punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages for the harm caused to the plaintiff. Punitive damages are awarded to make a public example of the defendant and to deter the defendant and similar individuals or organizations, like a large corporation, from engaging in this type of behavior in the future. Punitive damages are often awarded in torts where the defendant is a wealthy corporation or the actual injury is small and there is a low compensatory award, such as that provided for harm to personal dignity (like invasion of privacy) or for the violation of a civil right (like racial harassment).

The result of a civil lawsuit can also be the requirement that defendants cease from engaging in a behavior or that they perform court-mandated actions. In education, for example, some state legislatures have outlawed bilingual education as a method for teaching English language learners, and courts have mandated busing and other race-based assignments to end school segregation. Unlike defendants in criminal lawsuits, defendants in civil suits may not be incarcerated as the direct result of losing a civil trial. However, a civil defendant may be incarcerated for violating a court order to act or desist in acting, under a contempt of court citation.

An action under civil law does not preclude an action under criminal law, or vice versa. By way of illustration, in some states, if a student were to hurt a teacher while at school, it is possible for the teacher to sue the parents of the student for money damages under civil law and for the state to also charge the student with the crime of assault. The civil lawsuit would be filed by the teacher (the plaintiff) and would seek some judgment, most likely an amount of money, against the parents of the student (the defendants). The criminal case would be filed by the government (the prosecution) against the student (the defendant). Each case would occur separately.

In civil law, there can be only one trial regarding claims arising from a single transaction or occurrence. The losing party, whether it is the plaintiff or defendant, may appeal the decision to a higher court for review, but a new trial may not be initiated on the same issue by the same plaintiff against the same defendant. This is referred to as res judicata. It corresponds to the prohibition against double jeopardy in criminal law.

Eric M. Haas

See also Bill of Rights; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Civil Rights Act of 1964; Common Law; Contracts; Lau v. Nichols; No Child Left Behind Act; Regulation; Remedies, Equitable Versus Legal

Further Readings

  • Heubert, J. (Ed.). (2000). Law and school reform: Six strategies for promoting educational equity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

Legal Citations