22 Mar CAN MURDER BE GROUNDS FOR A WRONGFUL DEATH LAWSUIT?
Posted By Gruenberg Kelly Della || 22-Mar-2021
Yes, negligent or intentional actions can justify personal injury lawsuits, and if these actions cause someone’s death, a wrongful death lawsuit may be appropriate. Although murder charges are different than civil lawsuits, both legal actions can arise from the same event. Additionally, the results of a criminal case do not have to determine the outcome of a civil case.
What Is Murder?
Legally speaking, murder is an intentional killing that is unlawful and committed with “malice aforethought,” which refers to express and implied malice or depraved indifference to human life.
An individual who commits murder either intentionally inflicts serious bodily harm on someone else or behaves in a way that shows an extreme, reckless disregard for human life.
Murder is also classified by degrees. First-degree murder is deliberate and premeditated or occurs while someone is committing a dangerous felony (e.g., arson or armed robbery), and second-degree murder is intentional but is not premeditated.
Some states (Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania) recognize third-degree murder, which is unintentionally causing someone else’s death while committing a dangerous act. Most states classify this kind of killing as manslaughter, a related but ultimately different crime.
Nevertheless, first-degree murder, second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter can all justify wrongful death actions.
What Is Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death is a legal action that includes the death of a human being, negligence or the intent to cause harm, and surviving family members who suffer financially as the result of the death. Murder has all the elements of a wrongful death claim if someone dies because of someone else’s intentional actions and their surviving relatives lose money as a result.
For example, consider an armed robbery in which the robber shoots their victim. Even if the robber did not mean to kill anyone, their intentional actions led to a death. If the victim was a family’s primary breadwinner, the family would have grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Burdens of Proof
The primary differences between a murder case and a wrongful death are as follows:
- A murder case occurs in criminal court
- A wrongful death action occurs in civil court
- Prosecutors (usually from the state) file murder charges
- Plaintiffs (surviving family members) file wrongful death claims
- Murder cases seek convictions, fines, and jail time
- Wrongful death cases seek damages (compensation for the plaintiffs)
- Murder cases and wrongful death lawsuits have varying burdens of proof
In a murder case, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but in a wrongful death case, the plaintiff must convince the judge or jury that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true via “preponderance of the evidence.”
As a result, defendants are sometimes found not guilty for murder and liable for wrongful death. Conversely, if the defendant is found guilty of murder, they will likely be held liable for wrongful death.
Typically speaking, the burden of proof is higher in criminal cases because the stakes are much higher and the punishments are much more severe.
While criminal cases can keep the public safe and provide a sense of justice, they don’t do much for those who have lost a loved one. Civil cases can provide this much-needed remedy.
Case Study: O.J. Simpson
The most famous wrongful death case is likely that of O.J. Simpson. The former NFL running back was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her friend in 1994. Although Simpson was acquitted of the murders, a civil jury found him liable for wrongful death and ordered him to pay $33.5 million to the family of one victim.
As of January 30, 2018, Simpson had still not paid the wrongful death judgement, which was then worth about $70 million.
Although Simpson was not convicted of murder, the killings of his ex-wife and her friend are a textbook example of how murder cases and wrongful death actions can unfold separately and lead to different results.
If you have lost a loved one due to someone else’s bad behavior, our wrongful death lawyers at Gruenberg Kelly Della can help you hold them accountable — whether or not the defendant faces criminal consequences.
Call us at (888) 305-6372 or contact us online to discuss your case during a free consultation.