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Public Law vs. Private Law: Definitions and Differences

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  • 0:39 Public Law
  • 2:24 Private Law
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

The simple difference between public and private law is in those that each affects. Public law affects society as a whole, while private law affects individuals, families, businesses and small groups.

Public Law vs. Private Law

If you saw a man run from a convenience store with a few pilfered products under his arm, he is violating public law. He committed the crime of theft, and that affects everyone.

On the other hand, if your neighbor filed suit against you because your barbeque smoke traveled to his yard, you may be violating private law. You infringed on your neighbor's right to peaceful enjoyment of his property.

Essentially, the difference between public law and private law is whether the act or acts affect society as a whole or is an issue between two or more people.

Public Law Explained

To simplify things, public law deals with issues that affect the general public or state - society as a whole. Some of the laws that its wide scope covers are:

  • Administrative law - laws that govern government agencies, like the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Constitutional laws are laws that protect citizens' rights as afforded in the Constitution
  • Criminal laws are laws that relate to crime
  • Municipal laws are ordinances, regulations and by-laws that govern a city or town
  • International laws are laws that oversee relations between nations

Let's use Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) to better understand public law as it relates to an administrative agency.

In Brown v. Board of Education, Linda Brown, the plaintiff (brought about by her father, Oliver), contended that his daughter was not being protected under the Constitution. Since Brown was suing the Board of Education, this falls under constitutional law, but an administrative agency was sued for the violation.

Linda had to walk several blocks to the school bus stop even though a closer whites-only school existed within a few blocks from her home. Brown's parents believed that Linda's 14th Amendment rights were violated when she was banned from a white school closer to home because of her race.

The case was won because the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation a violation of Brown's constitutional rights. This falls under public law because issues of segregation and discrimination affect society as a whole, not just this particular child.

Private law is different. Private law help citizens resolve issues between themselves.

Private Law Explained

Private law affects the rights and obligations of individuals, families, businesses and small groups and exists to assist citizens in disputes that involve private matters. Its scope is more specific than public law and covers:

  • Contract law - governs the rights and obligations of those entering into contracts
  • Tort law - rights, obligations and remedies provided to someone who has been wronged by another individual
  • Property law - governs forms of property ownership, transfer and tenant issues
  • Succession law - governs the transfer of an estate between parties
  • Family law - governs family-related and domestic-related issues

In the case of Carvajal v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, Inc. (No. 10-57757), Carvajal ordered and consumed a grilled artichoke at a local Houston restaurant. It was his first time consuming this vegetable. Unaware of the proper way to scrape the flesh against one's teeth, he chewed and swallowed the entire artichoke including all the leaves.

Hours later, he experienced severe gastrointestinal pain and required emergency medical attention. He sought compensation from Hillstone Restaurant Group, Inc. in the amount of $15,000 for his pain and suffering.

Carvajal contended that he was not instructed by the server on how to eat an artichoke. Therefore, the restaurant was negligent in serving a dish that was potentially dangerous to a novice diner.

This is an example of tort law, or laws that deal with the wrongdoings between private citizens that usually end in monetary settlement but never jail time.

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