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How do civil and criminal cases after a death differ?

The shock and grief of losing a loved one in an accident can prove to be overwhelming for any person. It is common to feel lost, helpless, angry and incredibly frustrated, considering the fact that there is often nothing we as friends or family members could have done to prevent the death.

However, this is not to say that nothing can be done to hold accountable those who did cause or contribute to a death. In the event of a fatal accident, there are two types of cases that can be filed: criminal and civil. 

Let's consider a situation in which someone is killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver.

Criminal cases are largely out of the hands of a decedent's loved ones. A prosecutor will decide whether to file criminal charges after the drunk driver is arrested. The case will then go through the criminal court system. To secure a conviction, prosecutors must prove a person's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If convicted, and a person will be faced with criminal penalties including jail or prison time, restitution, probation and/or community service. 

A civil claim, on the other hand, is one filed by a family member or representative of a decedent's estate. A wrongful death lawsuit is one that seeks monetary compensation for damages suffered in connection with a loss and are filed to establish liability based on clear and convincing evidence. 

After a fatal accident, both criminal and civil charges may be pursued but they are independent. This means that even if criminal charges are not filed, you can still bring a wrongful death claim. Further, because the standards of proof differ when it comes to criminal and civil claims, a person can be found liable in a fatal accident without being convicted of a criminal offense.

This can all seem quite confusing and complicated, especially for people who are already reeling with the death of a loved one. However, discussing the options available to you in more detail with your attorney can help you understand what rights and options you have to take action against the party responsible for your loss.

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