Not every wrongful death matter involves criminal behavior, but many do. Although you may not expect an arrest to always occur in a situation involving an automobile death or workplace fatality, most assaults that result in the death of a victim will at least arguably be a criminal act. Whether the law considers a death to be the result of murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter – or even other criminal behavior that indirectly leads to death such as stalking or bullying which ends in suicide – it is proper for the family members of the deceased to pursue a wrongful death action for their losses against those that played a part in causing the death (which can include employers if the defendant was on the job at the time).
Certainly, the successful criminal conviction of a defendant can be deeply significant in proving a wrongful death claim, but convictions and even arrests do not always occur. The fact that a defendant has not been arrested or convicted – while not ideal – does not prevent the family members from pursuing a wrongful death case, for the reasons stated below. Speak to the wrongful death attorneys at Judd Shaw Injury Law in New Jersey and New York – who have recovered over $90 million for clients – about your options in pursuing a wrongful death suit in your situation.
The Burden of Proof is Lower in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
The American court system is set up so that there are two very different burdens of proof that must be reached in the criminal court system versus the civil court system. In criminal court, there is a constitutional requirement that prosecutors must prove that every element of a criminal act occurred “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a homicide case, prosecutors may have a challenge in doing this, and defense attorneys will do everything they can to cast just enough doubt to win a not guilty verdict.
It is a different matter altogether in civil court where wrongful death cases are tried. In civil court, the elements of a wrongful death claim generally must only be proven by a “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that is more likely than not the case (in other words 51% likely or higher) that the elements of a wrongful death tort occurred.
Jury Unanimity is Generally Not Required in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
In addition to the burden of proof, most criminal courts require that the jury reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict a defendant. This is why many high-profile cases where there seems to be an abundance of evidence against the defendant end in a not guilty verdict or mistrial, as it often takes only one skeptical juror to sway the outcome.
In wrongful death cases, however, jury unanimity is not required, and generally only a majority of the jurors are required to find for the plaintiffs to ensure a winning outcome. One prominent example of this is the notorious murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson in the mid-90s, when a California criminal jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty, but a later civil jury in a wrongful death suit awarded the victims’ families $33.5 million in damages to be paid by Simpson.
Criminal Prosecutors Have to Pick and Choose Their Cases
Because it can be so difficult to secure a guilty conviction, many criminal prosecutors – who are often driven by securing the highest conviction rate possible – will focus their attention on the cases that are easiest to win at trial and will not bring charges in more challenging cases.
This trickles down to the police level as well, as police officers may not want to make an arrest unless there appears to be enough evidence to meet the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. Thus, the fact that an arrest was not made and/or that charges were not brought does not mean that a wrongful death suit could not be successfully brought. Indeed, the O.J. Simpson case and many other matters suggest otherwise.
You May Have the Resources and Drive That the Government Does Not
Finally, when you work with an experienced wrongful death attorney, you will have a legal advocate that works directly for you and your family, unlike a government prosecutor. Your attorney will be driven to recover financial compensation for you and your family, and can draw on resources to properly investigate the death and win the justice you deserve.
Contact a New Jersey Wrongful Death Attorney Today
The experienced wrongful death attorneys at Judd Shaw Injury Law have won over $90 million in compensation for our clients through settlements and verdicts, and we are here to stand by your side as your allies and champions in winning the recovery you deserve from all potential defendants. Contact us today to speak to a wrongful death attorney about how we can help you and your family win the justice and financial recovery that you deserve under New Jersey law.