Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Civil Liability Definition:

A civil law requirement to compensate another because of an unlawful injury to his/her person or property.

Related Terms: Delict, Quasi-Delict, Obligations, Civil Law

Known in French-language civil law jurisdictions as la responsabilité civile and to some English authors, as delictual liability or a delictual obligations, to distinguish it from the other main branch of obligations in civil law, contracts, as well as from liability that issues from criminal law.

It is to the civil law what tort law is to the common law.

In civil law, obligations resulting from contracts pre-supposes pre-existing legal rights or bonds between the parties.

Obligations that arise from civil liability do not. Instead, they spring from a delict, an event, such as a negligent action which causes injury to a person.

In their 1977 book on Civil Law Systems, the authors translate delictual liability simply by referring to the common law term, tort, although what might constitute a compensable tort at common law, might not be compensable in civil law under civil liability.

Civil liability arises from historic statement of law found at §1383 of the French Civil Code of 1804:

"Everyone is liable for the damage he causes not only by his acts, but also by his negligence or imprudence."

Similarly, the German Civil Code of 1900 at §823 founded civil liability as follows:

"A person who, willfully or negligently, unlawfully injures the life, body, health, freedom, property or other right of another is bound to compensate him for any damage arising therefrom."

In Quebec, Book 5 of the Civil Code is entitled Obligations; Chapter 3 thereof, Civil Liability in the English version - De la responsabilté civile in the French.

The pre-194 revision of the Quebec Civil Code contained a succinct statement of civil liability:

"1053. Every person capable of discerning right from wrong is responsible for the damages caused by his fault to another, whether by positive act, imprudence, neglect or want of skill."

That section has been written but the law, unchanged, and now presents as §1457 of the Quebec Civil Code.

Civil liability, aka delictual liability, is of Roman law origin, as is most of the civil law.

Like most law codes of the era, the Roman law was most interested in eliminating vigilante justice which often erupted into local wars and the loss of men needed for farming. Similar to the wergeld, the Romans adjusted their law to provide for financial compensation. At first, only intentional actions were compensable such as furtum (theft) and iniuria (insult). But gradually, the Roman law came to recognize negligence as compensable. The term damnum was introduced to refer to, generally, the harm caused or the compensation the victim of the delict was entitled to; what we now call damages.


  • Cornu, G., Vocabulaire juridique (Paris: Presses Universitaires, 205), pages 807-808
  • Mehren, A. and Gordley, J., The Civil Law System (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), pages 555-589.


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