Wrongful death occurs when a person dies because of someone else’s misconduct or negligence. Although there may also be a criminal case related to the death, a wrongful death suit is a civil action totally separate from the criminal charges. In the civil case, the burden of proof is less than the criminal case for manslaughter or murder.
There are many differences between the lawsuits. In a criminal prosecution for murder the state must prove that a person knowingly caused the death of someone else after purposeful planning. Someone who acts knowingly is aware that his behavior is in essence certain to cause a particular result. First degree murder cannot be applied if someone is negligent. In that respect, the civil lawsuit for wrongful death is easier to substantiate than a murder conviction.
The burden of proof for both lawsuits is quite different. In the criminal case, the prosecutor has to present the case and convince the jury with proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the accused is guilty of the crime. This is the maximum burden of proof in our criminal justice system and exists to help prevent someone who is not guilty of a crime of being convicted. The penalties for being found guilty of a criminal offense often means jail time and losing many freedoms for a long time. In addition, a conviction of first degree murder in many states means life in prison without parole. Losing one’s freedom and liberties is seen as a much greater loss than being sued, which is the end result of a civil case.
In a civil wrongful death case, the burden of proof is the preponderance of evidence, meaning more plausible than not. Many times a civil and a criminal case can take place at the same time. It is common for the defendant not to take the stand in a civil case as to not incriminate themselves. Because what they say on the stand in the civil case can possibly be used against them in the criminal suit, the defendant usually pleads their Fifth Amendment rights. On the flip side, if they plead the fifth in the civil case it can be seen as a sign of guilt and can be used against them in the civil suit.
One can be found innocent in the criminal case but guilty in the civil case. The O.J. Simpson case is a good example of this. Simpson was found not guilty of murder after a trial by jury. However, he lost the wrongful death suit where he was deemed responsible and instructed to pay the Brown family $25 million.
Because the burden of proof lies with the prosecution in a criminal case, the criminal defense attorneys job is to argue that the prosecution has not provided this proof.
First degree murder is one of the most serious crimes one can be accused of committing. A conviction can include a life in prison and in some states the death penalty. It is important to hire the best possible criminal defense lawyer. Contact a civil litigation lawyer Rockville MD trusts for a consultation to discuss your case and how we can help.
Thanks to the authors at Daniel J. Wright Law Firm for insight on the differences between criminal and civil prosecutions.