Civil (Wrongful Death Lawsuits) vs. Criminal (Murder Trials)
Some people get confused about the difference between wrongful death lawsuits and murder. Generally, there are two very broad categories of lawsuits in this country, which are civil and criminal. Civil cases involve lawsuits that individual citizens bring against each other (or against corporations or insurance companies representing either individuals or businesses). People can hire their own private attorneys to bring civil lawsuits. And, in most cases other than contempt, civil lawsuits do not lead to incarceration (at least not directly, meaning unless somehow the evidence presented in a civil case reveals that a criminal prosecution by the government is warranted), but rather result in payment of damages. Criminal lawsuits are instituted by government prosecutors on behalf of the state and victims. Wrongful death is a civil lawsuit (instituted by survivors or estates against individuals or corporations responsible for the death and which cannot directly lead to incarceration, meaning the judgment will not involve incarceration), while murder is a criminal lawsuit (instituted by criminal prosecutors and which can lead to incarceration).
Wrongful Death Lawsuits Are Brought By Different People And Involve Different Burdens of Proof At Trial
Wrongful death lawsuits are civil actions, usually filed by the estate or relatives of the deceased with the help of a wrongful death lawyer, on the basis that defendant is responsible for the deceased’s death through a careless, deliberate, or negligent act. Wrongful death lawsuits may be based on an act that also constitutes murder as that term is defined by the criminal statutes. But the only available remedy in a wrongful death lawsuit is the plaintiff’s financial recovery rather than punishing the defendant with incarceration or other criminal penalties.
Vastly Different Burdens Of Proof
Because they involve civil rather than criminal litigation, wrongful death lawsuits have a different burden of proof than criminal cases. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff’s attorney generally must prove that the defendant is responsible for the death by a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means that there is at least a 51% probability (“more likely than not”) that the defendant committed the allegations in the civil complaint (the document that starts the wrongful death lawsuit).
Criminal cases has vastly different burdens of proof, which require the prosecutor to establish “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. And the case itself is not filed by the individual’s estate, but by the government. If convicted of murder, the individual will likely be incarcerated or even killed if the case warrants and the jury and judge agree that capital punishment is appropriate.
Also Different Levels Of Intent
Wrongful death lawsuits and murder are also different in the type of conduct that is punished. In wrongful death lawsuits, the defendant may have just been negligent (e.g., improper vehicular passing), although intentional conduct that could also be punished in a murder trial can form the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit. But murder always involves some degree of criminal intent, which very generally speaking is beyond civil negligence (this is very general information, so I encourage you to speak with a prosecutor or criminal defense attorney if you have further questions about murder or other forms of criminal punishment). So a simple way of looking at the situation is that actions that amount to criminal murder can also form the basis of liability in a wrongful death lawsuit. But the reverse is not always true (meaning many actions that could lead to liability for wrongful death could NOT also lead to criminal punishment for murder).
Case In Point: OJ Simpson
OJ Simpson was first charged with first degree murder in California, where he was found not guilty by a jury. The criminal case was not filed by the family of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, but by the state. However, after the “not guilty” verdict, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson’s families filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages for wrongful death. The civil lawsuit had a much lower burden of proof than the criminal trial and led to a multimillion (45+ million) dollar verdict in favor of the families and estates. So the wrongful death lawsuit was successful even though the murder trial was not.