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Understanding the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Negligence

The term negligence refers to a breach of duty of care. There are two types of negligence: civil and criminal. You are probably familiar with civil negligence as it is often used in civil cases that involve neglect of duty. 

So, what does criminal negligence entail, and how is it different from civil negligence? Read on to find out. 

Criminal Negligence Explained

Criminal negligence is sometimes referred to as culpable negligence. It involves doing acts of harm that a reasonable person would have perceived and avoided.  

Criminal negligence offenses include the keeping of a dangerous pet, involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, negligent storage of firearms, and negligent vehicular homicide. 

That said, is recklessness the same as criminal negligence? Recklessness refers to intentional disregard of risk or potential harm. Examples include drag racing, reckless firearm discharge, criminal vehicular homicide, and reckless driving.

The difference between recklessness and criminal negligence is based on risk perception. In recklessness, the accused was required to appreciate the risk. Negligence, on the other hand, calls for the accused to be aware of the risk. Therefore, recklessness is a more serious crime than criminal negligence. 

Recklessness and negligence may be difficult to distinguish. In fact, most legal systems use them interchangeably due to their similarities. 

The Difference Between Criminal Negligence and Civil Negligence

Civil negligence involves failure to exercise reasonable care. A typical example is causing a rear-end accident due to distracted driving. Normally, such an incident will not warrant a criminal conviction. 

On the other hand, criminal negligence refers to extreme acts of negligence that could result in a risk of death and grievous harm. A traffic violation, like hitting a pedestrian while making an illegal turn, is civil negligence; however, if you hit the pedestrian while street racing, a dangerous activity, you might be guilty of criminal negligence. 

Another key difference between the two lies in their penalties. Civil negligence results in monetary damages, often compensation for the financial and non-financial losses caused. However, the penalties for criminal negligence might include fines as well as a prison sentence. 

Finally, civil negligence cases are filed by the victim (plaintiff) against the wrongdoer (defendant), whereas the prosecutor files a criminal lawsuit against the defendant. 

During a criminal case, the defendant might defend their actions by claiming and proving that the damage was caused by accident. Thus, it was not done by consciously disregarding potential risk or harm. The judge or jury will ultimately determine if the evidence presented supports the alleged criminal negligence charges. 


Unlike civil negligence, criminal negligence involves acts of negligence resulting in death or severe injuries. The implications of such a crime are also more serious than those of civil negligence. 

While mentioning criminal negligence, a related term, recklessness, often comes up, too. Even though these two terms refer to different concepts, they are quite similar and can be used interchangeably. 

If you are accused of negligence or recklessness, ensure you hire a lawyer to help you understand the differences between them and the best defenses against them. A criminal defense attorney will help you understand the law and protect your rights. 

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