Wrongful Death

Protect Your Legal Right to Fair Compensation With a Wrongful Death Civil Suit With Pending Criminal Charges

Criminal charges may offer the promise of holding guilty parties accountable for wrongful death, but a concurrent civil lawsuit in Missouri is equally essential for justice to be served. Filing a civil case empowers grieving families to seek financial compensation for their losses, providing some closure that a criminal trial may not fully address. The Kansas City wrongful death lawyers at Foster Wallace can explain the differences between the two paths of justice and guide families through complex legal proceedings. 

Criminal Homicide Charges vs. Civil Wrongful Death Lawsuits

While both criminal trials and civil lawsuits may center around the same wrongful death, they are two distinct legal cases. They differ widely in the standard of proof needed and their respective goals, as well as in other critical areas. 

Was the Cause of Death Intentional?

Missouri state law Section 537.080 defines wrongful death as one resulting from any act or circumstance where the person may have been entitled to damages through a personal injury lawsuit had they survived. By contrast, someone commits a murder if they knowingly cause the death of another person, with or without premeditation.

A criminal case, whether it is murder, homicide, or manslaughter, typically involves intent. By contrast, many common causes of wrongful death in a civil case may be unintentional. The wrongful death may be accidental. Examples include car accidents, slip-and-falls, drowning deaths, workplace accidents, and nursing home neglect. Wrongful death civil claims may also include intentional acts. 

Who Brings the Case Forward?

Only the government can bring a criminal charge forward when someone violates one or more laws. Murder, homicide, and manslaughter are the relevant charges. By comparison, specific family members may be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Missouri. 

The surviving spouse and children have top priority for filing this civil action. If the deceased does not have a surviving spouse or children, their grandchildren may be eligible to file a claim. After that, eligibility may turn to the decedent’s parents, siblings, or their siblings’ children. The court may appoint someone to file on behalf of the person’s estate if no one comes forward who fits these categories. 

How Do Duty of Care and Negligence Work?

To be found guilty in a criminal case, prosecutors must establish intent. The person willingly and knowingly caused the death of the victim. Wrongful death civil cases are different. The wrongful death may have been accidental, but the defendant owed the decedent a duty of care. They had a legal obligation to act with care. Their breach of this duty of care caused the fatal injury and the victim is owed damages. Slip and fall cases are a good example of the roles that duty of care and negligence play in wrongful death claims. 

For example, the owner of an office building may have purposely invited the victim onto the property or otherwise opened it to the public. They may then have been negligent in maintaining flooring near the top of a flight of stairs, leaving a slippery puddle on a slick surface. If the victim slips on this puddle and falls down the stairs to their demise, the property owner may be held accountable for damages in a wrongful death claim. 

In this example, the property owner or management did not commit a criminal act. Failing to mop the floor does not equate to manslaughter. It can leave them liable for damages through civil action, though. 

What Is the Standard of Proof?

The level of proof needed to find a defendant guilty in a criminal case is much higher than it is in a civil case. With criminal charges, prosecutors must establish guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

To prove a wrongful death case in Kansas City, plaintiffs only need to reach a verdict “based on a preponderance of evidence.” The evidence must show that it is more likely that the claim is true than untrue. In other words, the burden of proof is a threshold of 51 percent. To get there, wrongful death attorneys support the claim through hospital records, expert testimony, photographic evidence, eyewitness reports, and other evidence. 

Famously, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges in his murder trial in 1995. But, in the subsequent civil case starting in October 1996, Simpson was found responsible for the deaths and had to pay over $33 million in damages. The burden of proof was lower in the civil case than it was in the criminal case. 

What Are the Possible Outcomes?

Critically, the goals for criminal and civil cases are different for grieving families. They also result in entirely different outcomes in serving justice and holding guilty parties accountable for their actions.

In a criminal case, the guilty party may be sentenced to criminal penalties. These may include jail or prison time, fines paid to the state, probation, and restrictions on privileges. The only way for families to receive financial compensation for the wrongful death is through civil action. The possible outcome of a civil case is the defendant must pay a specified dollar amount. Families do not receive any money at all from the outcome of a criminal trial. 

The Importance of Filing a Wrongful Death Case

The outcome of a pending criminal case is unknown. Families may not find the justice and closure they seek in the verdict whether or not the culprit is found guilty. A civil wrongful death suit helps grieving families hold the responsible party accountable for their actions. Another crucial benefit of filing a wrongful death lawsuit is financial compensation. 

It is impossible to put a price on the lives of beloved family members. But, it is equally important to recognize the financial reality of losing a loved one. A criminal conviction may put the perpetrator behind bars, but that offers little solace to a family left with the monetary burden of short- and long-term expenses and losses.

Possible Damages to Recover

Missouri wrongful death lawsuits have no universal cap on damages. Settlement amounts are meant to be comprehensive. Recoverable wrongful death damages may include:

  • Lost wages and future earnings
  • Hospital and medical expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Loss of services, consortium, companionship, and support
  • Cost of caregiving equal to 110 percent of Missouri’s average weekly wage
  • Punitive damages

In one case, Foster Wallace and co-counsel represented a client who had lost his wife and unborn child in a car accident. The driver of a commercial truck recklessly merged into his wife’s lane, forcing her to swerve into oncoming traffic, where she was struck and killed. After nearly three years of litigation and mediation, the parties reached a $7.25 million settlement weeks before trial. 

Discuss Your Case With Our Kansas City Wrongful Death Lawyer

Navigating the complex course of a Missouri wrongful death lawsuit benefits from the guidance and insight of a knowledgeable attorney. The Kansas City wrongful death lawyers at Foster Wallace can help you avoid common mistakes in your case and advise you on your legal options. The law is complicated and can change at any time. 

Through extensive investigation, careful strategy, and compelling negotiation, we will work tirelessly to help your family earn the rightful justice you deserve. We can explore your case details and advise you on what steps to take next. Call us today to schedule a free initial consultation. 

Michael Foster
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Kansas City Personal Injury Attorney