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Wrongful Death: The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Liability


November 2, 2016

Picture of Wrongful Death: The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Liability

The death of a loved one is one of the most common and heartbreaking tragedies that all of us will someday face. While dealing with a loved one’s passing is never easy, it can be especially difficult to move forward when the death was due to someone else’s negligent or intentional actions.

While most people know that a person who intentionally causes the death of someone else can face criminal charges, they may not know that that person may also be responsible to the family in civil court. These cases, called wrongful death claims, seek to hold the person financially responsible for intentionally or negligently causing the death of another person.

Criminal vs. Civil Court

Criminal charges for murder, manslaughter, or another form of homicide often follow an intentional killing. When a death is not intentional, but was due to an extraordinarily reckless or negligent action, then a person could face charges for reckless homicide or involuntary manslaughter.

No matter what the charges are, the penalties in criminal court all involve sentences of probation, jail time, or prison time. People who are found guilty in criminal court may owe fines, have their driver’s license revoked, or face numerous other types of penalties.

In contrast, the civil court system cannot send people to jail, even for intentional murder. Instead, the only remedy the civil court has is money. People who are found responsible for another person’s death in civil court will be ordered to pay damages to the surviving family.

Additionally, the family in civil court has the option of bringing a lawsuit in civil court even if the prosecutors decide that there is not enough evidence to support a criminal charge.

Why Bring A Wrongful Death Case?

The idea of facing two different trials after the death of a loved one can feel daunting. However, there are many benefits to bringing a wrongful death lawsuit which may help the family to heal.

First, civil court has a different standard of proof and different rules of evidence than do criminal trials. In a criminal case, a defendant must be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard is hard to meet, and often results in an acquittal even though there is a substantial amount of evidence pointing towards the defendant’s guilt.

In a civil trial, the standard of proof is known as the “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that it is more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the death. This is an easier standard to meet than in the criminal court, and civil trials can be used to hold an acquitted defendant responsible for a death.

For example, the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman famously sued O.J. Simpson for wrongful death after he was acquitted in his criminal trial. While the verdict could not affect his criminal acquittal, the families viewed the civil victory as justice for the deaths of their loved ones.

In addition, civil wrongful death actions help families when a person’s actions were negligent, but not necessarily a crime. For instance, a person who negligently causes a car accident might not need to face jail time, but they should be held responsible when their actions cause a death.

Finally, wrongful death actions help the family recover financially from the death of their loved one. The deceased may have left behind young children, or may have been the breadwinner of the family, or may have sustained a substantial amount of medical bills or funeral expenses which the family cannot afford without help. In these and other situations, a wrongful death lawsuit can help the family pay for the unexpected expenses the death of their loved one left behind.

If someone else’s negligence or wrongdoing causes a death in your family, the attorneys at The Linebaugh Law Firm will help you get justice. Our Texas wrongful lawyers work hard to hold negligent parties responsible for their actions, and we will help you get the compensation you need to recover financially from the injury or accident.

If you are unsure about whether or not your family should file a wrongful death action, contact our office today and schedule a free consultation by calling (281) 422-0505.

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