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What Does the Term 'Liable' Mean?

A legal liability is, in essence, a responsibility or fault that the law will enforce. For example, in a contracts case, your liability may be for fulfilling a contractual promise to perform a service.

If you don’t meet the requirements of your legal responsibility, you may be considered “liable,” or responsible, for the consequences. Determining your liability is usually a factor the other side will need to prove in a lawsuit or criminal case against you.

There are many ways you can be considered liable in both civil and criminal courts. Here are some of the most common cases where liability issues are addressed.

Liability in Civil Cases

Liability for civil complaints, or “torts,” can be broken into several categories, such as intentional acts against another person, intentional acts against another person’s property, unintentional acts of negligence, and strict liability. In civil cases, the standards of proof are lower than they are for criminal cases; the plaintiff in the case has to prove that it’s more likely than not that the defendant is guilty, rather than a measure of reasonable doubt.


In a typical civil case for battery, the plaintiff will need to prove several elements to demonstrate a defendant’s liability: the defendant must have performed an affirmative act, with the intent to cause harm or offense (or the knowledge that harm or offense was likely to occur from the act), the act must have resulted in contact, and the contact must have happened against the plaintiff’s physical person. Though, in these cases, a “person” may sometimes be interpreted more broadly to include things like the clothes a person is wearing or an object they are holding.

If the plaintiff can convince a judge or jury that these elements were more likely than not met, the defendant can be found liable for battery and may be required to pay for any damages the battery caused.


Usually, in a case for trespassing, the plaintiff will need to prove that the trespasser entered onto the plaintiff’s land intentionally and without permission or other legally recognized defense.

It’s important to note that in most jurisdictions, the “intent” requirement for trespass is not intent to commit a trespass, just an intent to be on the land you occupied. That is, if you walked into someone’s yard thinking it belonged to your friend, but it actually belonged to your friend’s neighbor, you can still be found liable for trespass on the neighbor for intentionally being on that land, regardless of the reason or mistake.

In most civil cases, it’s still possible to be found liable for trespass, even if you didn’t cause any physical harm to the property while you were there.


There are many different subsections of negligence that may apply to your case. In general, negligence is behavior that creates foreseeable, unnecessary risks that harm another person or person’s property. Driving above the speed limit and crashing into another car, for example, may be an example of a negligent act, even though there was no intent to hit the other vehicle.

One of the most common ways a court will try to determine liability in a negligence case is to consider what actions were reasonable under the circumstances. If it’s possible to foresee a risk, but the risk of serious harm is low and the cost for preventing it is high, the court may find that the prevention was not reasonable enough to equal liability for negligence.

Strict Liability

In strict liability cases, the plaintiff won’t need to prove negligence or intent, just that the defendant was responsible for any harm the plaintiff sustained. For example, under the category of strict liability for pet owners, you may be liable for injuries caused by an “unreasonably dangerous animal” if you knew your pet was unusually aggressive and prone to attacking people, and your pet then attacked and injured someone, even if you didn’t have any direct fault that led to the attack. You may still be strictly liable for the costs of the injuries because it was your pet and it possessed a higher risk than an average animal of the same kind.

Strict liability laws can also apply to “abnormally dangerous activities.” For example, if you were shooting off fireworks at a summer backyard party and one exploded prematurely, injuring one of your guests, you may be found strict liable for the injuries for participating in an abnormally dangerous activity, even if the accident didn’t result from any negligence on your part.

Criminal Liability

In a criminal case, you’ll be charged in a criminal court instead of a civil court, and you’ll be charged with a crime, not a tort. Whereas civil courts only really focus on monetary damages for the injured party, criminal court penalties can include probation or jail time. There’s also a higher standard for proving liability than in a civil case, as criminal cases require a finding of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Liability in a criminal case usually requires proving that the defendant committed an intentional criminal act, with the knowledge of what they were doing. In some cases, a person may be found to not have the required knowledge or awareness of the crime necessary for proving criminal intent, which may alter their level of criminal liability.

Strict liability may apply to criminal cases as well. It’s not always necessary to know that you’re committing a crime with your actions, just that you intended your actions, and those actions met the qualifications for a crime.

Joint and Vicarious Liability

The weight of liability can also be affected by the number of people involved in the act, or the degree of their involvement.

If multiple people commit an act together, they could each be found jointly liable, and would all be considered equally guilty and equally responsible for restitution. The involvement to be considered jointly liable could range from a group of people who negligently build a faulty bridge that injuries someone, to one person driving recklessly while their friend merely encourages them to speed up.

In cases of vicarious liability, certain circumstances could make a person liable for someone else’s actions. An example of vicarious liability would be if an employer required an employee to take safety shortcuts to finish a project faster, and then someone was hurt because of the ignored safety standards. Even though it was the employee who completed the action, the employer could still be found vicariously liable because of the nature of the employer-employee relationship.

Determining Your Liability

There are many ways a court can find you liable for a tort or crime, and many possible defenses to prevent liability. The rules for liability can also vary greatly from state to state. By hiring a local lawyer to represent you in your case, you could have a better chance of determining your risk for liability and for trying to defend against it.

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