Civil law pertains to any type of behavior that causes an injury of some kind to an individual, group, or corporation. A person who feels like they were wronged by someone and brings legal action against the perceived wrongdoer is called the plaintiff. What they are hoping to accomplish is to either protect their interests or to collect monetary damages. The person being sued is the defendant and, if found guilty, will have to comply with the orders or stipulations imparted by the court and pay an amount in damages. That said, what are the different types of civil law?
There are four principal types of civil law, contract law, property law, family law, and tort law. Contract law deals with agreements made between two or more parties, each of whom is required to honor their end of an agreement. Property law covers personal property such as bicycles, jewelry, animals, and real property, such as land and anything constructed on the land. Property law also includes intangible items such as copyrights and stocks. Family law deals with marriage, divorce, child custody, adoptions, and anything family-related, and tort law is a section of civil law that concerns personal injury and civil wrongdoing.
What Are Some Examples of the Different Types of Civil Law?
As I briefly stated, contract law deals with a valid, enforceable agreement between two parties and stipulates what should happen if one of the parties fails to do as they promised. There are three points for it to be considered a valid, enforceable contract.
- A valid offer is made,
- A valid acceptance of the offer is made, and,
- An exchange of some form of consideration is given. Consideration is something provided of value that is given in exchange for the agreement to perform a service.
A case that displays an example of a breach of contract is an old English case that took place in 1892 –– Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company. The company ran an advertisement claiming that if a person smoked their smoke ball according to a specific set of instructions, it would prevent them from getting influenza. If they did contract the flu, the company promised to give them £100. The company went further and deposited £1000 in the bank to show their sincerity in the matter. They wanted people to know they had the money in case someone who used their product still got sick.
The Plaintiff, Louisa Carlill, believed the advertisement, purchased the smoke ball, and used it three times a day as per the instructions, from mid-November 1891 until January 17, 1892, when she got sick with the flu. When she requested the £100, the defendants refused to honor their agreement. They argued that their ad was not to be taken as a serious, legally binding offer. So Carlill brought a civil suit against the company for failing to keep their contract. The judge ruled in her favor.
Family law covers a wide range of topics that all fall under the umbrella of family law. Cases mentioned above, such as marriage, divorce, and child custody cases, are all common examples of family law. However, there are other types of cases covered under family law as well, like, domestic violence, the dissolution of adoption, and emancipation of a minor.
Because there are so many facets that fall under the umbrella of family law, attorneys tend to specialize in one or two areas.
The following case made it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. Conner Perkins had moved into a new house and set up a room for his 5-year-old daughter, whom he had raised for three years before being stripped of all his rights. Conner had conceived his daughter with a woman who was already married. When his daughter was three, the mother and her husband went to court to obtain full custody of their daughter, leaving Perkins out of the picture. Under Florida law, the mother had every right to do this at the time.
Perkin’s fight to parent his biological daughter is a fight many fathers have lost for years. But when the case went to the supreme court, things turned around. Perkins argued that the Florida law was outdated and that it is common for kids to be born to parents who aren’t married. The supreme court agreed, and Perkins was eventually allowed to be a part of his daughter’s life. This ruling paved the way for all biological fathers fighting to be a part of their daughters’ lives.
This is just a general explanation of the most common types of civil law. There are many more types of civil cases that are not as common such as:
- Class action cases. They are similar to torts, but the plaintiff in this instance is a group of people who have all been injured by the same product or same circumstance. It could be, for example, that all the people were exposed to a hazardous substance and became ill or died, or there was a malfunction in a product on the market that was found to be faulty, and several people were injured.
- Complaints against the city or federal government. This type of civil case is brought to court when a plaintiff claims that a city law or city policy has caused harm to its citizens.
When discussing property law, we will find that there are three different categories.
- Real property,
- Personal property, and,
- Intellectual property.
Real property covers such things as buildings, houses, and plots of land –– things that are rooted and substantial. It could also include crops, fences, and machinery.
Personal property refers to objects that are movable such as digital devices, bicycles, cameras, and other personal possessions. If it can be moved from one place to another, then it is likely considered personal property.
Intellectual property isn’t tangible. It refers to the property rights that are vested in something created, such as the rights to a book a person wrote or a certain discovery or invention someone made. There are four main subcategories of intellectual property.
- Patents, and,
- Trade secrets.
In the late 90s, musicians still made their money by selling albums. However, an 18-year-old boy prodigy, Shawn Fanning, created Napster, a peer-to-peer music download sharing service that allowed users to download MP3s for free. In 1999 the case A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. came to light when A&M Records and several other record companies connected to the Recording Industry Association of America filed a lawsuit against Napster. The plaintiffs cited Napster for contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. Napster was found guilty on both counts and, in 2002, was shut down.
Tort law is a civil law that pertains to the duty we all have to exercise due care in our daily lives to not injure someone or damage another person’s property. If a person violates the duty of care of another, it is their responsibility to pay damages to the person they hurt or to restore the property they damaged.
This well-known case, Liebeck v. McDonald’s, happened in 1992. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, was severely burned when she placed a hot cup of McDonald’s coffee between her legs to put cream and sugar in it while sitting in her son’s car in the McDonald’s parking lot. The coffee was so hot that Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, despite the layer of clothes she was wearing. The hot coffee burned away through layers of muscle and fatty tissue, requiring skin grafts and other treatment. She had to be hospitalized for eight days, and her recovery lasted two years.
Liebeck offered to settle for $20,000, but McDonald’s countered with an offer of $800, which didn’t even cover the medical costs. The jury saw photographs of her burns and heard testimony stating that McDonald’s coffee was 30 to 40 degrees hotter than other companies. The jury also heard testimony that 700 other people, including children, had been burned by McDonald’s coffee in the past, and even though McDonald’s was aware of this, they still refused to lower the temperature of their coffee, which was considerably higher than coffee temperatures served at other establishments. They failed to exercise due care.
The goal of this lawsuit was to “right a wrong.”
The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages for the pain and suffering she endured, as well as medical costs. Still, the court reduced those damages to $160,000 because they said Liebeck was partly responsible for her injury.
Hopefully, this has answered some of your basic questions concerning the different types of civil law. As you can see from the stories above, the situations can be quite complicated. If you are looking for more information pertaining to the laws of the state in which you reside, it is always best to seek legal representation.
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.
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