There are two possible ways that a wrongful death can happen: Someone can be killed as a result of another person’s negligence or someone can be killed as a result of another person’s intentional actions.
That second scenario sounds a lot less like, “the victim died in an accident,” and a lot more like, “the victim was murdered.”
Since that is essentially the difference, why are some defendants brought in front of a jury in a criminal trial for their actions, while others only face some measure of justice if the family of the victim presses the case in civil court as a wrongful death claim?
The answer to that question has to do with one of the biggest differences to exist between the criminal and civil courts: The standard of proof required for a guilty verdict.
In criminal cases, the defendant’s freedom is at stake, so the court is required to use the highest standard of evidence possible in order to reach a murder conviction: The prosecution has to prove that the defendant intentionally caused the victim’s death beyond any reasonable doubt.
That’s a very tough standard to meet — especially in today’s world, where forensic evidence is often expected but at the same time heavily distrusted. Juries can be hard to convince, even when police and prosecutors think that they have a strong case — if the case is lacking strong evidence, prosecutors may decline to take a case to trial. Often, they’re hoping to build a stronger case as more evidence comes to light — if they press the case too early and lose, the defendant can never be tried again for that victim’s death in a criminal court.
Civil courts, by contrast, only require “the preponderance of the evidence” to indicate that the defendant is guilty to get a conviction. That essentially means that jury has to believe the defendant is 51 percent likely to be guilty — that’s all — in order to find for the plaintiff. Civil courts are allowed to use a lower standard because a verdict there will only affect someone’s pocketbook — not his or her freedom.
If you’re looking for a way to hold someone accountable for a loved one’s death and the prosecutor is declining to take action, a wrongful death attorney can advise you on how to proceed.
Source: Findlaw, “Wrongful Death Overview,” accessed April 24, 2017