photo of a rose April 11, 2018
Is a Wrongful Death Case Criminal or Civil?

A wrongful death, technically, is any death that was not a person passing “naturally”. However, when it comes to the courts, the term “wrongful death” is reserved for civil cases. While a wrongful death might result in criminal charges and a civil lawsuit, criminal courts use terms like homicide, manslaughter, and murder to address wrongful death cases.

How Civil and Criminal Wrongful Death Cases Differ in Indianapolis

When a wrongful death results from the negligence of another, you have two potential case types: a criminal case and civil case.

A Criminal Case

Criminal cases are actions brought by the state or federal government. The prosecutor represents the state, filing charges against the defendant. Charges can include:

  • Involuntary Manslaughter – An unlawful killing of another without intent or malice.
  • Voluntary Manslaughter – The killing of another person that falls short of a murder charge, due to lack of premeditation, or mitigating circumstances.
  • Murder or Homicide – The unlawful killing of another person with intent and malice.

The prosecutor can bring a criminal action against a person who was negligent and caused the death of another. However, criminal cases require the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed each element of the crime charged. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof in law, because in criminal court the defendant’s freedom is at stake.

If a person is convicted of negligent homicide (or any level of homicide) in criminal court, they face:

  • Fines
  • Prison Time – which can go up to life imprisonment depending on the charge and circumstances
  • Probation

After a conviction, the judge can sentence the defendant to one, two or a mixture of all three of these punishments.

A Civil Wrongful Death Case

Civil death cases are wrongful death cases. In these cases, it is the surviving family members and any dependents of the victims who take a case to court. While criminal trials are public, civil wrongful death claims are private. The family does not seek jail time, court fines, or any criminal punishment. Instead, they seek monetary damages for their loved ones’ death.

To succeed in a wrongful death claim, family members are not required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is at fault. Also, there is no presumption of innocence like there is in a criminal case.

The standard of proof is much lower in a civil wrongful death case, and it only requires the plaintiff prove by a preponderance of the evidence. If they can show that the defendant is more likely guilty than being not guilty, they can succeed.

The Different Levels of Intent

Wrongful death cases and criminal cases have different levels of intent in which a defendant is punished.

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the defendant is negligent in most of the cases. While intentional acts, such as murder, could eventually turn into a wrongful death lawsuit, most wrongful death actions are based on unintentionally causing the death of another.

Criminal cases typically involve some form of intent that stems beyond primary civil negligence.

Can a Murder Conviction Help a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

A murder conviction can help  in a wrongful death lawsuit. It is easier to prove the defendant is guilty with a preponderance of the evidence if a criminal court has found them guilty using a much higher standard of proof.

Wrongful death lawsuits are intended to procure compensation for the loss of a victim. Therefore, you do face complications when receiving compensation. A convicted murderer will go to jail or prison, and they will no longer earn an income that could be used for compensation. Therefore, an attorney must review the defendant’s assets and determine if they have enough assets to liquidate and satisfy the judgment before proceeding.

Can You File a Wrongful Death Case If the Defendant Is Found Not Guilty?

You can still file a lawsuit even if the defendant is not convicted of murder. The burden of proof in your civil case is much lower. Therefore, you do not have to show that the death was intentional to prove your case.

Murder and wrongful death are different types of legal action. Criminal cases seek justice while civil cases seek compensation. If you cannot seek justice through the criminal case, you can still seek justice and receive monetary damages through a civil case.

Infamous Example: OJ Simpson Case

In the case of OJ Simpson, he was charged with first-degree murder in California. However, the jury found him “not guilty” in that criminal case. After the not guilty verdict, the surviving family members of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson filed a civil lawsuit against OJ Simpson seeking damages. They won their civil case because the burden of proof is much lower. The trial wound up in a $45 million verdict in favor of the estates for the victims.

Why You Need a Wrongful Death Attorney

If your loved one passed away and you need to pursue a wrongful death case against a business or individual, it is imperative that you hire a wrongful death attorney. A professional injury lawyer, like those at Jacobs Law, LLC can help prove your wrongful death case – regardless of the outcome of the corresponding criminal case.

Jacobs Law, LLC understands how difficult it is to lose a loved one, especially at the hands of another. We want you to receive justice, and we want to help you secure the financial compensation you need to take care of medical costs, loss of income, and the financial burden of losing a loved one.

Speak with us today to schedule your free consultation by calling our office or completing an online contact form. All consultations are risk-free, and you do not pay our attorneys unless we succeed in your case.