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Civil Law Basics

What is civil law?

Civil law is the term used to describe non-criminal law having to do with private rights and remedies related to property, commerce, and administrative matters.

Someone who violates a criminal law may be jailed, fined, or placed on probation. Someone who is liable under civil law may be ordered by a court to pay a sum of money to another person or to take some other action to remedy a problem.

It is possible for a person to be charged with a crime and be held liable for damages under civil law for the same act. For example, someone who attacks another person may be charged criminally with assault and battery. However, the victim may also pursue the matter civilly to be paid for damages related to the attack such as broken glasses, medical bills, and lost wages.

What is a tort?

Tort refers to action that harms another person or his property. Tort usually refers to injuring a person, causing damage to his or her property or reputation, or harming someone’s commercial interest. A person who is injured or harmed may sue the person who committed the tort in civil court.

The tort may be an intentional act or an unintentional act. If unintentional, it is usually referred to as negligence and occurs when someone fails to use reasonable care to prevent or avoid injury or harm.

What is defamation?

Defamation means harm to one’s reputation. Two examples of defamation are libel and slander. (Code of Virginia § 8.01-45)

Libel is a written communication, such as a newspaper article, that is false and damages a person’s reputation.

Slander is a a spoken communication that is false and damages a person’s reputation.

What if a juvenile commits a tort in Virginia?

The fact that someone is a juvenile does not, by itself, release the person from responsibility for a tort. Courts look at many factors in determining whether a juvenile will be held responsible.

Are my parents liable for damages for my torts?

In Virginia, parents of persons under the age of 18 may be held liable for up to $2,500 for willful or malicious destruction of public or private property (Code of Virginia §§ 8.01-43 and 8.01-44) Other laws impose greater liability on parents for the actions of their minor children.

What is a contract?

A contract is an agreement with specific terms between two or more persons or entities in which there is a promise to do something in return for a valuable benefit known as “consideration.”

Contracts are at the heart of most business dealings; therefore, contract law is one of the most significant areas of law.

One of the most common examples of a contract is a credit card agreement. The credit card company agrees to allow the cardholder to use the card, and thereby borrow money up to a limit. The cardholder agrees to repay the money, with interest, according to the terms in the contract.

Another example is a contract for services. In Virginia public schools, the teachers sign contracts with the school boards to teach. In these contracts, teachers agree to be a classroom teacher for a particular school year and the school boards agree to pay the teacher a certain amount of money.

Who can make contracts?

In Virginia, you must be at least 18 years old to enter into a legally binding contract without parental consent.

In this area of the law, someone who is younger than 18 is referred to as a “minor.” Minors are not considered to be “competent” to make a contract. This means they do not yet have the capacity to understand the contract and the consequences of the agreement.

One exception is when a minor contracts for “necessities,” such as food or shelter. The minor is bound to pay for the reasonable value of necessities. For example:

  • a minor who goes into a restaurant and orders food is bound to pay for the meal; and

  • a minor who stays at a hotel is bound to pay for the lodging.

In practice, because a minor is not old enough to enter into a legally binding contract, most businesses will not make a contract with a minor without the parent or other responsible adult “cosigning” the agreement. The cosigner becomes responsible for the contract. Businesses may have additional requirements, such as having to prove employment and income.

There are a few circumstances under which the law recognizes a person less than 18 years of age as an adult and permits his or her signing certain contracts. These include persons in the armed services, persons who are married, and those who have been “emancipated” by the court. “Emancipation” is a court procedure that frees a minor from parental control. (Code of Virginia, § 16.1-331).

Although some persons less than 18 years old may be recognized as legal adults, businesses often establish other requirements such as having a good credit history or requiring a cosigner.

What is a “take it or leave it” contract?

A very common form of contract is a “contract of adhesion,” or a “take it or leave it” kind of contract.

This type of contract is a standardized contract form that offers goods or services to consumers on essentially a “take it or leave it” basis without giving consumers realistic opportunities to negotiate terms that would benefit their interests. When this occurs, the consumer cannot obtain the desired product or service unless he or she agrees to the form contract.

When you purchase new software or download an updated version of the software, you must agree to a software licensing agreement. This contract contains many terms and conditions (that few people read) to which the user must agree or not agree. It commonly uses the phrase “I Agree” or “I Do Not Agree.” If the user does not select “I Agree,” he or she is not allowed to use the software.

Another example of a “take it or leave it” contract is when an application, or “app,” on Facebook asks for permission to pull the user’s personal information and photos, as well as those of their friends, in order to run the app on their page. If users don’t agree, then they don’t get to run the app; if they do agree, they have entered into a binding contract.

Additional Information

About Virginia's Civil and Criminal Laws
Visit the Virginia General Assembly, Legislative Information System web site.