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Are Wrongful Deaths Civil Claims or Criminal Cases?

Published on Mar 28, 2019 at 1:29 pm in Wrongful Death.

Traditionally, the term wrongful death, which refers to any death that was caused by another’s actions and could have been prevented, is reserved for civil claims. In some cases, however, the single event could warrant two legal actions – a civil claim and a criminal case. Understanding the difference between the two actions and learning how one or both could benefit your family after an unexpected loss could secure a comfortable future and peace of mind.

Civil Wrongful Death Claims

When surviving family members or any dependents of the decedent take the matter to court, this is considered a civil claim. These claims are held privately. It’s often in the family’s best interest to hire a lawyer to handle the legal matters, as they can be extremely complicated.

Through the claim, the family can seek compensation for the losses associated with their loved one’s passing. This may include monetary awards for medical bills associated with the accident, property damage costs, their loved one’s pain and suffering, the loss of companionship, and the loss of wages and benefits.

An important aspect of any personal injury claim, including those involving wrongful death, is the statute of limitations. This determines how much time a family has to take legal action. In Georgia, most claims must be filed within two years of the death date. This, however, can change depending on the circumstances surrounding the death.

Charges for a Wrongful Death Criminal Case

A criminal case is brought by the state or federal government. While a civil claim generally involves deaths that were unintentional, a criminal case does not have to. Common charges include involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, and murder or homicide. Involuntary manslaughter refers to the unlawful killing of another without intent. Voluntary manslaughter is the killing of someone that falls short of a murder charge. This might be because of lack of premeditation or mitigating circumstances. Murder or homicide is the unlawful killing of another with malice and intent.

In a criminal case, a prosecutor will act as the representative of the state and will file charges against the defendant. The prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the act they are being charged with. As with civil claims, there are statutes of limitations. Depending on the offense, the plaintiff has two to four years to take action.

Understanding the Differences in Proof and Intent  

When it comes to civil claims and criminal cases, the evidence needed to prove fault or guilt are different. When a wrongful death action is taken, the case must be proven with a preponderance of evidence. This means that the judge or jury may rule in favor of the plaintiff if it’s more probable than not the defendant caused the death. With a criminal case, however, the defendant could be exonerated from a conviction if the jury has any reasonable doubt.

With both legal actions, similar evidence can be used to establish negligence or fault. This could include police reports, witness statements, doctor’s reports, medical records, video surveillance footage, or forensic evidence.

The intent for the two legal actions, like the burden of proof, is also different. With a civil claim, the plaintiff may only need to prove the opposing party was negligent and the negligence caused the death. For instance, if the defendant was texting while driving when they hit the decedent, and the car accident injuries resulted in death, it’s likely the defendant will be found responsible for the death.

With a criminal case, however, there generally needs to be a degree of intent. The prosecutor will need to prove the defendant’s actions were negligent or intentional. To convict someone of murder, the state must prove the defendant was acting on planned malice, even if the planning only occurred seconds before the deadly act.

How the Consequences Differ for Civil Claims vs. Criminal Cases

If a person is found to be at fault for a wrongful death claim, justice is only expressed in monetary terms. Calculations will be made to determine what the family is owed. With a criminal case, however, the consequences are much more severe. If a person is convicted of any level of homicide, they could face fines, probation, or prison time.

Depending on the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death, a civil claim and criminal case could commence at the same time. Both legal proceedings are incredibly different, and it can be challenging to balance them without the guidance of an experienced lawyer. If you’re prepared to take legal action on behalf of your deceased family member, get in touch with our lawyers today to learn about your options. We’ll help you determine how best to proceed based on your unique circumstances.