Wrongful Death vs. Criminal Homicide: Legal Distinctions & Overlap

Posted in: Wrongful Death | Sep 25,2023

The unexpected loss of a loved one is difficult and devastating under any circumstances. Those circumstances and the details surrounding each case can have a significant impact, however, on the legal ramifications and best possible courses of action for grieving families. Wrongful death and criminal homicide are two legal concepts that revolve around a death that results from another individual’s actions. While both involve the loss of human life, they exist in distinct legal realms with different purposes, standards of proof, and consequences. This post examines the main legal distinctions and potential overlaps of wrongful death versus criminal homicide cases.


Prosecution: Criminal vs. Civil

Criminal homicide cases are just that—criminal, with the defendant accused of breaking the law and facing prosecution from state or federal government authorities. If found guilty of murder, manslaughter, or a similar charge, the accused becomes subject to incarceration or other criminal penalties determined by the court and applicable statutes. 

Wrongful death cases, by contrast, are civil lawsuits that can be brought to litigation by the surviving family members or the deceased’s estate against the party they believe is responsible for the death. These cases’ primary remedy is monetary compensation for the deceased’s family rather than pursuing punishment of the defendant through criminal penalties. The aim is to alleviate the financial burden on the surviving family members.


Intent & Culpability

A defendant’s proven intent to cause harm to or kill the victim is a critical element in criminal homicide cases. Both wrongful death and criminal homicide cases can involve an individual’s negligent or reckless actions, causing or resulting in a fatality. On the other hand, a purposeful intent to cause harm or kill is generally not required to establish liability in a wrongful death lawsuit.



Burden of Proof

In criminal homicide cases, the burden of proof lies entirely with the prosecution, which must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Criminal homicide cases carry a high standard of proof, while wrongful death lawsuits typically have a lower burden.

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff filing the case must establish liability by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning that, in the eyes of the law, it is more likely than not that the accused’s actions caused the victim’s death.


Punishment & Remedies

If found guilty of a criminal homicide charge, defendants may face criminal penalties such as imprisonment, probation, significant fines, or even the death penalty in some states, depending on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances of the case.

In wrongful death cases, however, the proceedings seek financial compensation for the surviving loved ones or the deceased’s estate. Remedies in negligence, wrongful death, and similar medical malpractice cases typically include monetary compensation for damages such as medical expenses, funeral costs, lost future income, and family pain and suffering.


Overlap Between Wrongful Death and Criminal Homicide

While wrongful death and criminal homicide are distinct legal concepts, there can be overlap and interplay between the two, especially when the same incident leads to both civil and criminal proceedings. Some more common scenarios include:

Simultaneous Civil and Criminal Cases:

In high-profile cases, such as those involving police shootings or fatal accidents, the deceased’s families may pursue wrongful death claims and criminal charges against the responsible parties. The outcomes of these cases can influence each other.

Use of Criminal Convictions as Evidence:

A criminal conviction for homicide can be used as strong evidence in a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit. The fact that a defendant has been criminally convicted of causing the death may significantly impact the civil case’s outcome.

Different Burdens of Proof:

The difference in the burden of proof means that a defendant could be found liable in a wrongful death lawsuit even if they are acquitted of criminal charges.

Impact on Damages:

Criminal convictions can affect the calculation of damages in wrongful death cases. For example, a plaintiff is more likely to receive punitive damages if the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious, as evidenced by a criminal conviction.


Statute of Limitations

In most jurisdictions, including Indiana, there is no statute of limitations, and criminal homicide charges can be filed at any time after the crime. The discovery of new evidence or technological advancements in DNA processing can help solve “cold cases” years after the fact.

The Indiana Adult Wrongful Death Act states the statute of limitations for most wrongful death cases is two years from the date of the deceased’s passing. There are a small number of exceptions applicable in some instances, but a victim’s family or estate must move forward with legal action as soon as possible following a wrongful death. Evidence can be misplaced, and memories can fade over time, so pursuing a wrongful death case as quickly as possible following the traumatic event is imperative. 

Is your family searching for answers in the wake of a fatal tragedy? The sooner you seek legal assistance, the sooner you can get the answers and closure you need to move forward. Montross Miller’s attorneys are highly experienced in navigating the criminal justice complexities and legal loopholes in Indiana wrongful death lawsuits. Connect with our team today to schedule your confidential, complimentary case evaluation.