Potential Criminal Charges for Car Crash Fatalities

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Car crash fatalities can result in both civil and criminal charges. Civil actions are lawsuits brought by the victims of a car crash or, in the case of a death, by the estate or family members of the victims. Criminal actions are brought by a prosecutor or by a district attorney (DA) and are brought not to collect money for the family but to punish the person who broke the laws of the state. Not every car accident fatality is going to lead to criminal charges, but some may, depending on the circumstances of the accident. 

Criminal Charges

Every state makes its own criminal laws, and the types and names of the criminal charges that can result from a car accident are going to vary depending on the circumstances. Some examples of possible criminal charges might include the following:

  • Negligent homicide: This is a criminal charge in which a person causes a death not intentionally, but instead through his or her negligence. The key question here will be whether the person behaved with the level of care expected out of any reasonable individual or whether his or her behavior was so reckless that he/she should be held accountable for negligent homicide. The standard used does not look at the person's behavior in light of that individual's age, race, gender or other distinguishing characteristic. It compares the person to the average, hypothetical reasonable person. Usually, but not always, merely falling slightly short of what a reasonable person would have done isn't going to lead to negligent homicide charges. The person must have been very careless when driving for this charge to occur. 
  • Vehicular homicide/manslaughter: This has become the standard in almost all states in the US and is essentially a special form of negligent homicide specific to situations in which someone causes a fatal car accident. The charge may be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the actions of the person that led to the criminal sanctions. For instance, someone who behaved carelessly but not egregiously might be charged with misdemeanor negligent homicide. Someone whose behavior was especially bad and who broke traffic laws that by themselves lead to criminal sanctions (like DUI laws) might be charged with a felony. 

In addition to the charges specific to the homicide itself, a person who causes a fatality while driving could also be charged with the following:

  • DUI/DWI if he or she was driving drunk
  • Reckless driving
  • Reckless endangerment

Any other additional criminal charges, like endangering the welfare of a minor, might also be brought if the charges exist in the state where the accident occurred and if the required elements of the crime are met. Any and all of these charges could lead to jail time, and a combination of different criminal charges (different "counts" against you) may result in years in jail or large fines. 

Civil Damages

In addition to the criminal charges that are brought in the case of car accident fatalities, it may be possible for a civil suit to be filed. The standard of proof used in a civil suit is different, as unlike a criminal case, the plaintiff does not have to prove the claim beyond a reasonable doubt. The potential downside to losing a civil suit is also different than losing a criminal suit. Civil suits do not carry with them penalties of jail time, and a person cannot lose his or her freedom because of a civil suit. Instead, only money is usually at risk. In the case of wrongful death damages, this amount of money may be very significant: it will likely include lost wages for the remainder of the deceased person's life, as well as loss of companionship damages for family members and compensation for costs and pain endured by the victim before death. Any monetary penalties won in a civil suit are distinct from and in addition to criminal sanctions. 

Getting Help

If you are involved in a car accident that leads to a fatality, or if you know someone who has been, it is very important to contact a lawyer. As a potential defendant, a lawyer can help you to make sure you face the least amount of severe consequences possible. If you are a potential plaintiff, a lawyer can help you to get the damages you deserve.