Most people have heard of wrongful death cases, but they may not quite understand what they are and what their purpose is. Wrongful death cases can arise anytime a person loses their life due to the careless or negligent actions of another individual, company, or entity. Wrongful death laws in West Virginia allow surviving family members to file a claim against the alleged negligent party in order to recover monetary compensation for their losses. Here, we want to discuss whether or not a wrongful death claim in West Virginia is a civil suit and how this is related to criminal charges.
Who are the Parties in a Wrongful Death Case?
These cases will involve a “plaintiff” and a “defendant.” The plaintiff in a wrongful death case is going to be a family member (or personal representative of the deceased’s estate) that is allowed to file the wrongful death claim in civil court under West Virginia law. The defendant in the case is going to be the person whom the plaintiff believes was responsible for the death of the deceased.
What Must the Plaintiff Prove in a Wrongful Death Case?
There are four basic elements that need to be proven in order for a wrongful death claim to be successful:
- Duty of care. The defendant must have owed a duty of care to the deceased. For example, in the case of a vehicle accident, the plaintiff would need to show that the defendant had an obligation to obey traffic laws and drive carefully while operating their vehicle.
- Negligence and breach of duty. The plaintiff must show that the death of their loved one was caused in part or in whole by the careless, negligent, or reckless actions of the defendant. Again, if the situation involves a vehicle accident, the plaintiff needs to show the defendant failed to follow an applicable traffic law.
- Causation. The plaintiff in a wrongful death claim will need to show that not only did the defendant break a law or breach their duty in some way, but that the breach of duty directly caused the wrongful death of the plaintiff.
- Damages. Finally, the death of the victim must have generated some sort of quantifiable damages to the family or estate, including medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, loss of potential income, loss of protection, pain and suffering damages, etc.
Can Both a Criminal Case and a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Be Filed?
Yes, wrongful death cases and criminal cases are often both brought against the same individual in the aftermath of somebody’s death. However, these two cases are not the same. The civil wrongful death claim is brought by the surviving family members of the deceased in civil court. The outcome of a civil case will not result in a person being punished with jail or prison time or other associated criminal penalties.
However, criminal cases may be initiated by government prosecutors on behalf of the state and victims involved. These cases are handled in criminal court. Family members of those wrongfully killed can file a wrongful death claim even if a criminal case is never filed. Additionally, if a criminal case is filed, and a person is found not guilty, family members can still file civil wrongful death claims.
What is the Burden of Proof?
The burden of proof required in a civil wrongful death case is vastly different than the burden of proof required in a criminal case. In a civil wrongful death case, the plaintiff’s attorney needs to prove that the defendant was responsible for the death by showing a “preponderance of evidence.” This means that there needs to be a 51% probability (that it was more likely than not) that the defendant committed the actions alleged in a civil complaint.
In a criminal case, the prosecutor has to establish that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the burden of proof in a civil wrongful death claim is lower than the burden of proof required in a criminal case.