A common question we hear from family members is why the person who is responsible for their loved one’s death is not in jail. There can be many reasons for this, and sometimes the offending person does actually end up in jail, but that will never be because of a wrongful death lawsuit. A lawsuit is pursued in civil court, which can only award financial compensation for a person’s responsibility related to a death. It is the criminal court that sentences prison time for crimes, which is completely separate from civil court.
In a criminal case, the police and district attorney have made a decision that the perpetrator committed a criminal act which under the law is punishable as a crime. They have determined that there is enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that a person is criminally liable.
That means that sometimes, the defendant will have both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit filed against them. But even in the case where there are no criminal charges for whatever reason, a person can still be sued in civil court for wrongful death. Even when both types of cases are pursued against one person, they will be handled completely separately, by different legal teams.
In a civil case, the deceased person’s family needs only to be able to prove that more likely than not, the person’s negligence caused the death. Furthermore, negligence usually occurs when a death is an accident. If a driver accidentally runs a red light and causes the death of a pedestrian, this would give rise to a civil claim for wrongful death, but the district attorney may not pursue any criminal charges because it was an honest accident. On the other hand, if the driver was intoxicated and especially if they had a history of DUIs, then serious criminal charges would be far more likely be pursued.
Thus, if one of your loved ones has unfortunately passed away at the hands of another, do not be discouraged by the fact that the perpetrator has not been put in jail. Even if criminal charges are not being sought, you could still potentially have a civil claim for wrongful death to help compensate you for your losses. A civil lawsuit is another avenue to hold the responsible party accountable for their actions.