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Is Wrongful Death the Same Thing as Murder?

When someone dies due to the actions of another person, there are two possible legal remedies. The first is criminal–i.e., the responsible party is charged with a crime such as murder or manslaughter. The second option is civil, typically what is known as a wrongful death lawsuit.

So how exactly do the two differ? And is it possible for both remedies to apply to the same case?

What is “Wrongful Death”?

Let’s start with the concept of wrongful death. Maryland law defines the term as any death caused by “an act, neglect, or default including a felonious act which would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued.”

Basically, a wrongful death lawsuit is a personal injury claim that the victim would have filed had they not been killed. By law, the right to file the lawsuit then falls to the victim’s next-of-kin, such as their spouse, parents, or children. You will note from the text above that the definition of wrongful death includes “felonious” acts, i.e., crimes. But it also encompasses non-criminal acts of negligence.

Indeed, most wrongful death claims do not involve criminal acts. Think of a car accident. Most of the time, the negligent driver was not trying to hurt or kill anyone. But they can still be sued for damages if they injure someone. If the accident results in death, the family has the right to file a wrongful death claim.

The Different Burden of Proof in Criminal and Civil Cases

But what if the victim’s death did involve a criminal act? Can the victim’s family still seek civil damages in a wrongful death lawsuit? Yes. The criminal and civil proceedings are entirely separate matters. A person tried for a crime in connection with someone’s death can still face a civil wrongful death lawsuit without violating the Constitution’s prohibition against double jeopardy. This is because in a wrongful death case, the plaintiffs can only seek monetary damages–the defendant is not facing any additional jail time or loss of liberty.

The civil/criminal distinction is also important when it comes to the burden of proof. In a criminal prosecution, the state must prove the defendant’s guilt of the charged offense “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil wrongful death case, however, the plaintiffs need only prove the defendant’s negligence by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This is a much easier threshold to meet. Additionally, there is often evidence that is not admissible in a criminal trial that can be used in a civil case. For these reasons, it is quite possible for someone to be acquitted of a criminal act yet later be found responsible in a wrongful death case.

Contact Upper Marlboro MD Car Personal Injury Attorney Robert Castro Today

This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 870-1200.