American law creates something of a partition between the criminal and civil legal notions that a death is wrongful. In a criminal case, the defendant is at risk of losing their liberty or even being executed. The civil case is a different matter, with a focus on the defendant paying compensation to make things as close to right as possible under such awful circumstances.
If you're thinking about pursuing a civil case, it's a good idea to talk with someone from a wrongful death law firm. Here are a few basic things you should know about what makes a death wrongful in civil legal terms before you have that conversation.
Does There Have to Be a Crime?
No, the civil process does not require a criminal charge. Instead, the requirement for a civil wrongful death claim or suit is that the defendant committed an act that was negligent, reckless, or malicious. A trucking accident, for example, might lead to a non-criminal scenario where the trucking company still owes compensation to the victims.
You should also note that even if there was a criminal case, it's still a separate thing. If a criminal defendant was found "not guilty," they may yet be named as a civil defendant in relation to the death. Civil cases have a lower standard of proof, meaning an incident that might not result in a conviction may still lead to a settlement or judgment.
What Are Negligence, Recklessness, and Malice?
The American legal system requires people in certain situations to take reasonable precautions to prevent others from being harmed. In the previous example of a trucking accident, the company has to do things like conduct drug tests of drivers, perform maintenance on their vehicles, and operate within legal limits with the loads they haul. Failing to do these basic things may be considered negligence.
Deliberate actions tend to break up into recklessness and malice. An action is reckless when it wasn't meant to harm someone but a reasonable person could expect someone to get hurt. Speeding is a good example of recklessness. Malice is when you mean harm, such as when someone punches another person in a fight.
Do You Have Legal Standing?
The closest living relatives are the only people with legal standing to sue for wrongful death. Spouses automatically have standing, as do the victim's dependents. Other people, such as siblings, may only sue if there's no one closer to the deceased alive to do it. Non-relatives, such as business partners or unmarried romantic partners, do not have standing to sue.
To learn more, contact a wrongful death attorney.