A civil action is a noncriminal lawsuit that begins with a complaint and usually involves private parties. The plaintiff is the party filing the complaint, and the defendant is the party defending against the complaint’s allegations. By contrast, a criminal lawsuit begins with an indictment and involves the prosecution by the government against an entity or individual. Civil law governs civil actions, while criminal law governs criminal actions. Typical civil causes of action include breach of contract, battery, or defamation and violations of federal statutes and constitutional rights. To establish a prima facie civil case, a plaintiff must describe his or her damages or injury, explain how the defendant caused the harm, and ask the court for relief. The plaintiff may plead for relief in the form of monetary damages or by court order, such as an injunction or a declaration of legal rights (see remedies at equity versus law).
[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]